Fancy a trip to Mars? What if you knew it meant months trapped in a confined space, with only intermittent contact with the Earth, and only two fellow crewmembers to talk to? Where you needed to be alert to every possible sign of danger, yet most of your day was taken up with mindless busywork? And would you still want to go if you knew your family wanted you back at home with them?
No-one actually gets to Mars in The Wanderers. Instead, three astronauts – Helen Kane, Yoshihiro Tanaka, and Sergei Kuznetsov – are put through their paces in an elaborate simulation in Utah. As well as dealing with all the problems and indignities of interplanetary travel, they’re being watched constantly by a team of ‘obbers’, who are making careful notes of their every word and gesture, watching for any signs they’re cracking under the pressure.
It’s like Big Brother, but played in Brutal mode. Author Meg Howrey tells the story from the perspective of each of the three would-be Martians, but also from the points of view of their family members, and one of the observation team, delving deep into how each of them copes with the challenges in front of them.
You could say that nothing really happens in this book, and you wouldn’t be wrong. But that’s not really the point. It’s a character study, rather than a romp; an examination of exactly what kind of person might be suited to such an extreme job, and what havoc that might wreak on their personal relationships.
It’s thoughtful, fascinating stuff, but what makes this book feel particularly special is its conviction that humanity can be more than it is, if it can only persevere and use its powers for good. Space is vast, but so, it turns out, is the human brain.