The Wanderers, by Meg Howrey

The WanderersI have so many things I want to say about this book, but I’m finding it hard to phrase any of those things in ways that won’t give away, you know, all the things I have things to say about. So let me give you a little plot summary up top, and then if you’re intrigued you can go read the book and come back to this.

PLOT SUMMARY: We follow along as three astronauts are selected for a potential future Mars mission, of which the first part is a real-time simulation in the Utah desert. We get to see this simulation mission from the eyes of the astronauts and certain of their family members, and we get to learn not only how the mission works practically but also physically and emotionally for all of these characters. There’s an older American woman who’s a bit past her prime and knows it, along with her daughter who doesn’t really know how to exist outside of her mother’s shadow; a Russian man who’s decided to go through a divorce at the same time as this simulation mission and his son who’s using this time in America to explore his sexual identity; and a young (for an astronaut) Japanese man who seems pretty normal, although he and his wife, some kind of bigwig in companion robotics, have a very strange and superficial relationship.

Kinda cool, right? I thought so! If you think so, stop here. Seriously, stop. Here’s a recommendation for you, so you don’t even have to scroll to the bottom:

Recommendation: For sci-fi fans who like a little existential crisis in their narratives.

Okay, but, seriously. Spoilers ahead!

SPOILERS: Okay, so, the plot up there really is the basic plot of the story, but there’s also this really really weird subplot that had my brain breaking for most of the book. Pretty early on the author starts dropping hints that there’s something weird about this simulation mission. Everything feels really… real. Exceptionally real. Too real. But it’s only hints here and there until near the end, when she kind of drops the act and has one of the characters be like, hey, are we actually secretly in space right now?

Which, of course not, because why would you secretly send astronauts to Mars and not even tell the astronauts they’re going? Why would you secretly send astronauts to Mars for them to stay like two days and then come back? Why would you bother to create an elaborate Mars simulation to put on top of ACTUAL MARS?

But, on the other hand, you could, right? And if you did, wouldn’t that look exactly like this?

SPOILERS WITHIN SPOILERS: You know that movie A Beautiful Mind? I thought this book would end up like that movie, where I was totally on board with the weird government spying shenanigans (or whatever, it’s been a while) and then the movie was like, psych! He’s got a mental illness!, and then I was like, whaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaat.

SERIOUSLY ALL THE SPOILERS WHY ARE YOU READING THIS IF YOU DON’T WANT SPOILERS: Except that this book never gets to a whaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaat. It leaves you hanging. And so instead of being able to be like, oh, book, look how you tricked me, I am now, weeks later, still coming up with conspiracy theories about how they totally did go to Mars, but now they’re dead, or that they totally didn’t go to Mars but this whole thing was an incredibly elaborate psychological experiment about the effects of simulations on humans, or that Mars isn’t even a planet and scientists have been lying to us this whole time. I DON’T KNOW ANYMORE.

I kind of love that the book starts out like it’s going to explore the themes of what’s real and what’s fake and what’s performance and whether we can tell the difference between any of that, even our own realities and such, through the various characters we meet and their inner and outer dramas… and then it’s like eff it, let’s get completely literal here. It’s a serious hit-or-miss move, and I can imagine that it’s going to miss for a lot of people, but it hit me square in the existential feels.

But seriously. Is Mars real? Asking for a friend.

The Martian, by Andy Weir

The MartianYou and I, we’ve known each other a while (unless you’re new here, in which case, hi! and, uh, prepare for swears ahead), and I think you generally know how I feel about things. So I hope it’s safe to say that you know what I was thinking when I saw the first lines of this book:

“I’m pretty much fucked.
That’s my considered opinion.

If you guessed anything other than “SOLD SOLD SOLD” or at least “…tell me more”, then, well, you should go explore the archives!

If you yourself are thinking “…tell me more”, then read on, because I’m going to oblige!

The Martian, as the name implies, is the story of a dude on Mars. Why is he on Mars? Well, he was part of the third manned mission to Mars, which was going swell until a huge storm blew in, knocked everything around a bunch, and caused the mission to abort. Everybody got back in the capsule except for our hero, Mark Watney, who was knocked out and, according to his malfunctioning equipment, dead. Except, of course, he wasn’t, and now he’s stuck on Mars indefinitely, with only vitamins, water, and a handful of Thanksgiving potatoes to sustain him while he works out a plan to get home.

Are you excited yet? Because I am still super excited, and I have already read this book. In fact, in going back to look up details for this post, I found myself starting to read the book all over again, because, spoiler, I absolutely loved it.

The book is told primarily from Watney’s perspective via his log entries, written partially for himself and partially for whoever might find them in the future and therefore full of technical science-y things (which seem plausible enough and I so don’t care if they’re not) but also full of swears and emotions. Interspersed with the entries are third-person chapters detailing what is happening back on Earth and on the spaceship with the rest of the crew and sometimes what is happening to Watney when he is not writing log entries.

It was, for me, a very tense reading experience because I read it only on my breaks at work and so had to wait hours between entries, usually with something terrible having just happened to Watney, because, you know, stuck on Mars.

Luckily, Watney is a Space MacGyver, and really a lot of my enjoyment of the novel came from imagining this dude on Mars cutting apart millions of dollars of NASA equipment (including Pathfinder!) and duct-taping it back together, or combining hydrogen and oxygen together to make water with some explosive results, all the while explaining how this could totally work (again, don’t care if it couldn’t!). The rest of my enjoyment came from Watney’s personality, which is just the right combination of snarky and serious to match how I think I would feel, were I a super-smart astronaut suddenly given what is likely the rest of my life to explore Mars. I am totally Team Watney.

I loved this book so hard, from beginning all the way through to the exciting ending and even into the less-exciting, wrap-everything-up ending, which is brief enough that we can just pretend it never happened, right? Good. That’s what we’re doing, then. I loved this book from beginning to end, and from the beginning all over again just now. If I don’t just read the whole thing a second time, maybe I’ll go check out the other stories at Weir’s fantastically old-school website, which include Sherlock Holmes AND Doctor Who fanfiction? Uh, ‘scuse me guys, I gotta go. Be back… soon?

Recommendation: For fans of space and potentially totally made-up science and snarky dudes.

Rating: 10/10