Going to Mars in Utah

34661015The first thing that struck me about Meg Howrey’s new novel, The Wanderers, which centres on three astronauts training for a Mars mission in the Utah desert, was its gorgeous hardback cover. The circle in the middle of the dust-jacket is actually a cut-out, so the two floating figures are embossed in gold on the book itself. Along with the scatter of gold stars and planets over the rest of the jacket, I could happily admire this novel’s exterior for ages. It’s a good thing that the text inside is just as brilliant.

The Wanderers is not a high-concept space thriller like The Martian or Gravity (unsurprisingly, as it’s not set in space). While the details of this practice mission, taking place in the near future under the benevolent dictatorship of ‘Prime Space’, are fascinating in their own right, Howrey’s focus is firmly on her three main characters, Helen, Sergei and Yoshi, and their closest family members. While all three are beguilingly written, Helen was especially fascinating. A middle-aged woman, now widowed, with a difficult relationship with her only daughter, Mireille or ‘Meeps’, she has a sharp self-awareness of what she believes are her own emotional shortcomings. The question that dogs her throughout the book is: has she been a bad parent by pursuing her dreams as an astronaut?

Consistently logical, Helen knows that her feelings about her daughter don’t fall easily into familiar scripts: ‘The most stressful, dangerous and fatiguing moment of her life had been an eight-hour spacewalk to fix a tear in one solar panel on the space station, which she would also categorise as the most exciting, satisfying and exhilarating moment of her life. People always say day child was born, or wedding day, and certainly those were wonderful too, but they had not required any unique skills on her part.’ Helen’s fraught relationship with her dead husband, Eric, is unsurprising when we find out more about the roles they played: ‘Eric had assigned her an identity. Helen was logical, rational, didactic, meticulous. Not unlike a robot, a lovable robot… that Eric should assign her a personality that did not seem particularly loveable, and then tell her that he loved her, had seemed significant. She had to think him wonderful. Who else would love the person he described?’ However, by the end of the novel, Helen has found a way to narrate her feelings for Meeps in a way that honestly addresses her central question, and acknowledges how dominant rationality is in her psyche, without denying how much her daughter means to her: ‘You think I only love you in the “of course” way. That I always loved myself more, that my work was always more important. You don’t know how great and terrible the “of course” way is. You are able to accept things without reasons. I do not have that. The only thing I accept without reason is loving you.’

Both Sergei and Yoshi have tense family relationships to navigate as well. Sergei, recently divorced, has two teenage sons to contend with; the eldest, Dimitri, is still hiding his sexuality from the world, pursuing clandestine hook-ups with men. Meanwhile Yoshi cares deeply about his wife, Madoka, but feels distanced from her, the inevitable consequence of long periods away from home. Madoka has her own intriguing sub-plot that gets at a central theme of this novel: what is real, and why does it matter? She’s developed a new robot prototype, PEPPER, which is designed to help with the personal care needs of the elderly and disabled, while also providing companionship if necessary. Her conversations with this robot are another highlight of the novel, as it unwittingly boils down complexities of emotion into simple statements. (After Madoka tells PEPPER about a game she used to play with toy animals as a child, and that she’s sorry she wasn’t more creative, PEPPER suggests that she tell Yoshi ‘about playing with the zodiac animals and how that is a happy and sad memory for you.’) A scene near the end of the novel, where Mireille and Madoka talk to PEPPER, reflects how non-robotic even the most ‘robot-like’ person is. As Madoka explains, a robot can answer ‘yes’ to the question ‘Do you love your mother?’, as Mireille has just done: ‘But it would just be yes, in the end. It wouldn’t be a sad yes.’

With all this material about real and unreal experiences, feelings and emotions, The Wanderers sounds like a heavy read, but it’s actually one of the most genuinely funny literary novels I’ve read for a very long time. Humour is difficult in fiction; I don’t like humourless reads, but I often find that funny moments feel forced, breaking the mood or worse, distorting the characters for the sake of a good line or slapstick comedy. This is absolutely not the case in The Wanderers. Rather than falling back on old cliches about conflict and rivalry between the three astronauts in their locked-room sim, Howrey depicts touching and believable teamwork. All three characters are funny in their own ways, as demonstrated by a piece of black comedy near the end of the novel when they are discussing the protocol for if one of them dies in space:

“I got as far as ‘stick my dead body in the bag and hang me outside,'” Helen says now. “And I remembered the basics of the promession process: after my corpse is frozen, use RoMeO’s arm to vibrate me until I shatter and become a nice powder, then dehydrate my powder until it is dust, then put the dust in a can.”…

It is not in the protocol, but they should add that we take a label and put your name on it and stick it on the can,” Sergei says. “Because it would not be good to confuse you with can of protein powder.”…

“The UN treaty still holds?… We can’t let each other go out the airlock?”

No, it’s still considered littering,” Helen says.

“This is what you do for me,” Sergei says. “You put my dead body in the bag and send it out the airlock. You make fake can of powder for my family, and tell UN that promession protocols were followed and nobody littered in space.”

“Done,” Helen says. “You’ll do the same for me?”

“Yes. Yoshi, do you want the same or do you want us to eat you?”

“If you will permit a suggestion,” Yoshi says. “It is better for the space environment if you do not go out the airlock as a body. You could follow the CPB protocols and then egress as powder.”

Sergei and Helen agree this is an improvement of their plan.

It’s very rare to find a novel that is both so cerebral and so warm, witty and human. I think it’s the best thing I’ve read so far this year.

I received a free copy of The Wanderers for review. It’s out on 6th April.

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