Publisher - Gollancz
Published - Out Now
Price - £13.99 Paperback
Thanks to the publisher for an advance copy of this book in exchange for fair and honest review
Eight Astronauts. One killer. No way home.
Frank Kittridge is serving life for murdering his son’s drug dealer, so when he’s offered a deal by Xenosystems Operations – the corporation that owns the prison – he takes it. He’s been selected to help build the first permanent base on Mars. Unfortunately, his crewmates are just as guilty of their crimes as he is. As the convicts set to work on the frozen wastes of Mars the accidents multiply. Until Frank begins to suspect they, might not be accidents at all…
Mars may be the next final frontier as we start to think about human exploration beyond the moon and often we think of those future astronauts as a mix of scientists and fighter pilots. In this entertaining SF thriller from SJ Morden we get a slightly more blue-collar view take. Can eight seemingly less than perfect people create the first Martian base? Will anyone but the murderer be alive at the end?
Our focus in on middle aged Frank Kittridge; serving a maximum life sentence for killing his son’s dealer has now lost contact with his family and he is keeping a low profile until the day he dies in prison. However, in his previous life Frank was an engineer and got thinks built and this means the vast corporation that both owns his prison and has just won a contract to create the first Martian base means he is a useful asset. Frank gets the offer to make something special of his life with seven other criminals who bring a set of skills that could make this plan work. They’re all expendable but they have a chance to make a name for themselves. Over the next year we see Frank train, learn to bond with his team and finally set foot on Mars. Sadly, while that happens we also start to see people begin to die – Mars is a dangerous place, but the level of accidents suggests something more than bad luck is at play. When everyone you know is a convicted criminal are you not likely to have a more dangerous person with you and with the nearest police officer is a few million miles away how can you investigate?
Morden really works hard to get you into what appears to be a slightly strange idea for the first Martian base. It’s incredibly risky so why not use convicts and you can easily imagine a corporation working out they’re cheaper labour. The science and importantly the people dynamics of the crew are a highlight. A simple crew of eight people need a variety of skills from driving to wiring to make a base work and the idea of everyone having to learn other skills and work under pressure - firstly on earth and then on Mars feels authentic. Frank becomes the de facto foreman able to work with anyone and see the bigger picture plus he perhaps out of all the team sees a form of redemption in the idea. When the action moves to Mars Modern makes the place seem alive and alien at the same time. Huge mountains a buggy must scale; dust twisters that can wipe you away and endless seas of nothing where you’re protected from boiling your body away in the cold by only a space suit or a flimsy base wall.
I got really sold on the idea that a well-designed base that’s disassembled and sent to mars could be made up by people who’ve learnt exactly how it all fits together. Its also made realistic that such corporations would make mistakes and its up to the crew to devise how to heat the building. Lots of clever engineering tricks that when you’re on your own really are impressive to read. The idea of level headed team leader like Frank who can cajole and boost his team is quite sensible as the real type of person you may want on another planet to help you. In comparison with The Martian where one-man battles survival I think preferred seeing how people must learn to co-operate and perhaps find within themselves a new life. I got swept along with the sense of adventure and quite invested in their survival.
This leads me though to the murder mystery aspect of the book. The first half builds up a sense of mystery as we see these rather horrific escalating ‘accidents’ that underline how alone this crew and it has a classic murder mystery feel of a locked house with one killer hiding among the suspects. But I think most experienced SF fans may find their suspicions proved right as to what is really going on and I think a few more curveballs or surprises may have helped keep me guessing for longer. The resolution is logical and makes sense, but I’d loved to have worked harder to guess the prime suspect.
Overall this is a fast and really engaging bit of Martian SF. Morden I think is a writer to watch as making science come alive and add a human dimension is a rare gift. A perfectly engaging read while you gaze up at the summer night skies and dream of the future.