I received this book for free from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.The Wanderers by Meg Howrey
Published by Penguin on March 14th 2017
Genres: Fiction, Literary, Family Life, Science Fiction, Action & Adventure
Format: Electronic ARC
Buy on Amazon
Three astronauts embark on a seventeen-month training simulation in preparation for a real trip to Mars. During the hyper-realistic simulation, Prime Space will be studying the astronauts’ behavior and monitoring their communications with their families to see how they hold up on such a long mission. The goal is “not asking them to deal with the environment [Prime Space has] created for them, but creating the right environment for them to deal with whatever they encounter.” The most unexamined territory is not within the simulation but within themselves. The Wanderers is a character-driven novel that explores the nature of humanity and our relationships with each other.
You don’t stop being a real person just because you aren’t in a real place.
I was eager to read this book because it was described as “The Martian meets Station Eleven.” That’s not really what it is (and I don’t think they’re making that comparison anymore), but I was lucky that it ended up being another type of book that I like: introspection in space (in a way)! Like much literary fiction set in space, most of the book actually takes place in the characters’ heads. It’s more like Good Morning, Midnight or Spaceman of Bohemia, because it’s a journey of self-discovery rather than a grand space adventure. It might be telling that it sometimes reminded me more of my nonfiction reading: Spaceman: An Astronaut’s Unlikely Journey to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe* and The Traveler’s Guide to Space: For One-Way Settlers and Round-Trip Tourists. Another reason I was interested in this book was because I’m always fascinated by the experiences of participants in real-life Mars simulations. It definitely satisfied me on that account! The author was inspired by the Mars 500 mission in Moscow. There’s also the HI-SEAS project in Hawaii; the fourth crew disembarked in August 2016 and the fifth crew’s mission should be ending soon.
“Who are these people that can withstand such a trip, the danger, the risk, the isolation, the pressure? What can these people teach us? Because if we— the species—might eventually do something like move to another planet, it would be better if we made a few improvements on ourselves first, if possible.”
The chapters alternate between seven characters. The three astronauts chosen for the mission were selected to perfectly complement each other, “a kind of dream team, a trio whose individual temperaments, skills, and experience would combine in such a way as to be able to withstand the most challenging and dangerous expedition in the history of humankind.” The astronauts are never content to stand still and are always wanting to push the limits of exploration. They love their families, but they can’t resist the call to the unknown.
• Helen (53yo, USA) is experienced, tenacious, and reserved. She’s driven by a fear of being left behind. The end of her career coming up, but she isn’t ready to hang up her helmet just yet: “She is too young to watch herself be surpassed, and too old to be this hungry. She thinks she is too young to give up her dreams, and too old to want them this much. But she is both too young and too old, possibly, to change herself. And how many years left on Earth?” One of the most tragic things about Helen is that another person decided how her daughter would see her. Eventually, it would become how she saw herself.
• Sergei (45yo, Russia) is straightforward and pessimistic, with some anti-social tendencies. He presents himself like the man he wishes he was and is motivated by the urge to prove his father wrong.
• Yoshi (37yo, Japan) is thoughtful, professional, and likable. He’s the most adaptable and easygoing of the group, but he’s also prone to bouts of melancholy.
Intense focus on what was happening in the present eclipsed all else, but things do not disappear during an eclipse, only disappear from view.
The effects of isolation and confinement on the astronauts is what I came for, but it was their relationships with their families that ended up being the most intriguing. The Prime team is aware that the astronauts are very careful about how they present themselves, so they believe the family members might provide them with better insight. Yoshi’s wife Madoka observes that the tightly controlled conditions of the simulation are actually less extreme than everyday life on Earth. The astronauts have each other, but the family members are all dealing with some form of isolation as they deal with being left behind.
Prime Space team & the Families:
• Luke is a member of the observation team. The “Obbers” monitor the astronauts for signs of psychological distress.
• Mireille is Helen’s daughter. She’s vulnerable and emotional, which she channels into her acting. Her whole life has been overshadowed by her mother’s career. She resents mother for repeatedly putting her career first. She doesn’t want her mother’s story to define her life and she wishes that she didn’t need to be loved so much. Her nickname is Meeps, which made me feel irrationally irritated!
• Madoka is Yoshi’s eccentric wife and a sales operative for a company that manufactures robotic caregivers. Over the years, she has become a “kind of ancillary tool to the Voyages of Yoshi.” Her marriage to Yoshi looks strong to the outside world, but it’s actually hollow at the core. She’s relieved when he goes away for long periods of time because it’s exhausting to keep up the pretense of being Yoshi’s “awesome” wife.
• Dimitri is Sergei’s sixteen-year-old son. He feels inadequate next to his father and brother. He’s gay but isn’t ready to admit it to himself or anyone else.
There’s so much value in getting the family members’ perspectives, but there was too much activity on Earth. Madoka’s story is the most refined, so she was my favorite. One thing I really liked about the astronaut chapters was their interactions with each other. The family members operated more like independent satellites. I know that’s the point, but it made those chapters less interesting for me. My favorite section involving the families was the prelaunch dinner when Madoka and Mireille both engaged in a bit of play acting.
“Why shouldn’t we feel awe? In front of a beautiful painting we do not ask ourselves is it real? We know that it is not real. It is a painting. But we can still be filled with awe at its beauty.”
My reading experience mirrored some of the characters’ experiences. This book really messed with my own sense of a reality! I felt awed by the enormity of space when I read Good, Morning Midnight, even though it was fiction. The characters were actually experiencing outer space, so I felt like I was too. The characters in The Wanderers were in a simulation, so that altered my experience. BUT THEN, paranoia sets in. One of the astronauts sees a glitch that makes them suspect they might actually be in space. With a real launch and a simulated launch occuring at the same time it was always a possibility, but that was the first real clue that something shady might be going on. A switch flipped in me; should I have been reading it differently the whole time? The glitch isn’t the point; it’s how the astronauts, and perhaps the reader, react to it.
To orbit the earth is not to be shot up to some magical zone where there is no gravity, but to be shot up in such a trajectory that your subsequent fall means you won’t hit anything; you will persistently and permanently miss the Earth and circle around it. To have done this is to understand the persistence and permanence of falling and to understand that what is true does not always feel like what is true.
The word planet comes from the ancient Greek word for wanderer. The planets “move in relation to each other and the stars, but they don’t wander all over.” You can’t see all of a planet or moon at once, and in some cases, you’ll never see all their faces. Similarly, the characters are only partially visible to each other. Everyone in this book is putting up a facade, concealing parts of themselves from each other, and even from themselves. Being the person they think they’re supposed to be prevents their relationships from being as fulfilling as they could be. The avoidance of feeling or causing pain puts a wall between these characters.
Yoshi will not just be pretending that he is going to Mars, he will be pretending to be the most perfect person to go to Mars, and maybe he is, almost without question, he is, but that doesn’t mean he won’t have to pretend to be what he really is, because aren’t we all pretending to be who we really are?
To some extent, all of these characters live in self-created artificial environments. So between the simulation and the characters’ facades, what’s real? It’s complicated! I’m reminded of Madoka reflecting on the contradictions in her marriage. She acknowledges that the outside perception of her marriage as solid has some truth to it, but the hollow reality of her marriage is also true. At one point, Helen becomes so used to her altered self in the outside simulations that her real self looks fake. Some of the characters realize that they’ve spent much of their lives reacting to situations that they’ve dreamed up; both Yoshi and Mireille mention being affected by conversations and situations that only occurred in their heads. Regardless of what’s actually happened, all the emotions and reactions awakened by their experiences are very real. On a personal level, the events of this book reminded me of dreams. Every once in a while, I’ll wake up irritated with my husband because of something he did in my dream. It’s completely irrational, but it felt so real at the time! And like Mireille, I’ve sometimes worked myself up over an argument that I’ve acted out in my head.
[Letter from Yoshi to Madoka] Pluto and Charon show each other only one face, never turning away. … In astronomy, we use the word barycenter to describe the center of mass between two orbiting objects. Our Luna is smaller than Earth, and so the barycenter of Earth and Luna is on Earth, deep within it, actually. Because Charon is so large, and its gravitational influence so great, the barycenter of Pluto and Charon lies outside Pluto. Strictly speaking, Charon does not orbit Pluto, nor Pluto, Charon. They rotate around a barycenter between them. Looking only at one piece of each other. …. I have come to believe that I have loved you incorrectly. I have been orbiting a dream I cannot touch. I only know one of your faces. It is not that I didn’t want to know another face, it is that I loved that one so powerfully. Maybe I did not wish to know. There is a possibility that you are like Luna, and you see all my faces while I see only one of yours. But, forgive me, I do not think this is true. I think we are mutually locked. Perhaps this is what it means to be married. Perhaps this is what it means to be married to me. I saw a little of you, and thought it was everything. I understand that I was wrong.
You don’t have to travel to space to experience the unknown. In their isolation, these characters are forced to confront long-buried demons. They can no longer avoid seeing the obvious in order to protect themselves. Helen insists on not changing or feeling too much on the simulation so that she can feel or change more during the real trip to Mars, but the change is unavoidable. As much as they fight it, they’ll all be irrevocably altered by their experience. The Wanderers is a quiet novel without much of a plot, but it provides many thought-provoking ideas to explore.
* “For a mistake that measured 1/50th the width of a human hair, a two billion-dollar telescope was almost lost.” – More details about this incident is available here (#4 on the list). Mike Massimino talks about another incident with the Hubble Telescope in his book Spaceman, which is one of my favorite memoirs ever. His thoughts during the stressful situation made me laugh, even though I know it wasn’t very funny at the time: “This would be my legacy. My children and grandchildren would read in their classrooms: We might have known if there was life on other planets, but Gabby and Daniel’s dad broke the Hubble.”
* The Madoka/robotic caretaker sections reminded me of two excellent short stories I read recently. They are both available online: Tongtong’s Summer by Xia Jia (included in Invisible Planets: Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in Translation compiled by Ken Liu) and Saying Goodbye to Yang (included in Children of the New World by Alexander Weinstein)
* Speaking of eclipses, the total solar eclipse is coming up on August 21, 2017! We’re only getting the 67% version here in Houston. 🙁