Prime Space, a privately-owned company, intends to land people on Mars in four years’ time. They select a small crew of astronauts – Helen, Sergei and Yoshi – to man the trip, and, because a journey of this magnitude is anything other than straightforward, put them through a training scenario prior to the real launch.
The trial will see the astronauts living in conditions that mimic as closely as possible the conditions that they will face on the real journey – they will be completely isolated for 17 months, living in a tiny habitat, with no one other than themselves to talk to. They will have to fix equipment as they go, and Prime Space will make the trial challenging, attempting to anticipate any issues they could feasibly face. This will allow Prime Space to assess how they interact as a team, both initially and over an extended period of time, as well as how they are likely to cope with the journey and pressures on them.
The Wanderers is told from multiple perspectives, including the three astronauts and members of their families. The characters are completely distinct, however, and there was no risk of confusion as can sometimes happen when you tell a story from so many perspectives – each had a very different yet realistic voice.
I loved the characterisation in The Wanderers, particularly the astronauts, of whom Sergei was my favourite. He’s big and gruff (in my mind, he’s the sort of person you might describe in bear-like terms) but I loved the portrayal of his relationship with his sons, and particularly Dmitri (another of the points of view in the novel), who is coming to terms with his own situation – something he thinks he has kept hidden, and that he has to go through alone.
Helen was also a fascinating character. She’s a strong, logical and independent person who struggles with her own grown up daughter, Mireille (Meeps). She worries that she isn’t good enough, although seems to struggle to articulate this, and is conscious that her age will soon become prohibitive for further expeditions into space, which is where she feels she belongs.
Howrey goes to a lot of effort to give The Wanderers an authentic feel, and this comes through on almost every page of the novel. I would guess that she has stopped just short of venturing into space herself to make it so. From descriptions of the day to day life of astronauts, the pressure they come under and some of the slang terms they use, the details give this a plausible feel. I was particularly taken with “flying a desk” which essentially means to be assigned to more mundane office duties (Googling this phrase I can see that it’s more widely used than the space industry, but this is the first time I’ve come across it).
I’ve seen comparisons made to both The Martian and Station Eleven, including in the synopsis on Amazon. To be honest, I don’t really see a connection to either, other than the very obvious link of Mars between The Wanderers and The Martian. This is a very different novel that focuses predominantly on the human side of the story – what it’s like for the astronauts and their families during these prolonged missions, and I wouldn’t categorise this as science fiction at all, which the theme of space travel and exploration may suggest.
I absolutely loved The Wanderers, and I’m sure that it will feature on my favourite books of 2017. It will be published by Scribner on 6 April 2017 in hardback and digital formats – many thanks to Emma Finnigan for providing a copy for review.