In an alternate Earth, where space travel began before the first World War, a manned trip to another solar system is now possible in the year 2012. Temi Oh uses this conceit to explore what it would be like for us, people of the early 21st century, to explore the solar system and eventually colonize a new planet. It’s a great conceit. We’re introduced in the pre-launch section to a world with a space museum, one that has beautiful traditions dating almost a century at the beginning of the book, and a group of 7 teens who will man that spacecraft and become the first colonizers of a similar planet without intelligent life. Oh explains why scientists believe there’s no intelligent life on that planet: it’s simply just deeply rare in the cosmos. This kind of wide brush around what is and isn’t possible is a pretty common trick for Oh, and it started to grate on my nerves when great ideas and set ups failed to pan out.
The seven teens who are chosen for the mission have a range of obvious psychological issues that left me wondering “wait, them?” for most of the first third of the book. The book is set up with a tragedy right before launch day, and the rest of the inner solar system journey to Saturn is spent with the characters reconciling their role in this tragedy- or not reconciling it, and avoiding the issue. Honestly, I thought that we’d move on from it sooner in the book, and expected a flash forward into a part later on in their journey, but the novel is surprisingly contained to a few years of the character’s lives.
I’ve read a few books around the deep space and generations ship concept, it’s a really tricky sub-category of sci-fi, and this book reminded me of why it’s such a difficult category. Not only does the author need a firm grasp on what will make this kind of space voyage possible, but they have to understand human psychology and what happens to people confined to a small space for years, decades even, to add the drama of what goes wrong. Alistair Reynolds may have nailed the concept better than any other attempt I’ve read with his superb (and deeply terrifying) Ark books. Oh doesn’t take things in the direction I expected, which is refreshing on one hand, but also disappointing because spots that seemed like set ups for future conflict and issues between characters never pan out, and I was left wondering why the set up happened if there was never going to be a follow through. It almost seems like she likes her characters too much to let bad things happen to them.
I did like the way she incorporated personal faith into the book, with a character who believes she is chosen for this life and exploring her relationship with God in a reasonable way, rather than a “I’m a prophet and I will run this ship” kind of way I’ve seen go down in this genre a few times. I don’t entirely understand why this is set in an alternate timeline where we were exploring the stars so early in human history, and I was honestly more interested in the Earth the characters left behind than the (poorly fleshed out) spacecraft they enter into. I’ve always felt that the spacecraft needs to be a character of it’s own in this kind of tale too, and that kind of relationship of love and care and animosity towards the ship is sadly missing here.
So overall, an interesting entry into the space colonization genre. Not really hard science fiction, but proficient sf with a few lost threads which, if followed through on, really could have propelled this into a stronger narrative. It’s the author’s first book, and considering the genre she jumped into, it’s a strong one, so I’ll be looking forward to whatever else she puts out. If you’ve never read a space colonization book this is a good place to start, but if you’re familiar with the genre it could lead to disappointment.