Walking to Aldebaran by Adrian Tchaikovsky

I would like to thank the publisher for an advance copy of this novella in exchange for a fair and honest review

Publisher – Solaris

Published – 28th May

Price - £7.49 kindle eBook £22.00 hardcover

My name is Gary Rendell. I’m an astronaut. When they asked me as a kid what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said “astronaut, please” I dreamed astronaut, I worked astronaut. I got lucky; when a probe sent out to explore the Oort cloud found a strange alien rock and an international team of scientists was put together to go and look at it, I made the draw. I got even luckier. When disaster hit and our team was split up, scattered through the endless cold tunnels, I somehow survived. Now I’m lost, and alone, and scared, and there’s something horrible in here. Lucky me, lucky, lucky, lucky.

One of the attractions for science fiction is that temptation to boldly go. The unknown lies in the infinite and we want to get there and understand it. Of course, there is always a possibility that we humans will be over ambitious and bite off more than we can chew. In a vast universe there are going to be things way beyond our current understanding of science and society and when we face such a challenge, we may find ourselves clearly out of our depth. Adrian Tchaikovsky gives us a tale of one such expedition that while narrated by one of the most cheerful characters you’ll meet clearly underlines we all have our limits.

Our narrator is Gary Rendell and he is a bit lost travelling an endless dark corridor with no regular food or other company just the occasional dead alien fellow traveller. He is currently residing inside ‘the Crypts’ part of an immense alien artefact cut off from everyone he knows and as he wanders and meets other lost travellers from other expeditions, he tells us the tale of Earth’s greatest scientific discovery and the doomed group that went off to investigate it

Following the deep space Kaveney probe finding a mysterious gravitational distortion that eventually turns out to be smaller but weirder.  What obviously looks to have been built and was cruelly described as the ‘sacred effigy of the Galactic Frog God’. An international team is set up and sent in deep sleep to travel the furthest anyone has gone to investigate what is inside.  Probes get lost in it as soon as they enter. Ultimately Gary and a few other of the scientist astronauts decide to go in and then it all goes horribly wrong.

This will be one of my more circumspect reviews as the pleasure is in the unveiling of Gary’s tale. What I loved was two-fold the strangeness of the places that the astronauts visit is absolute – dimensions, gravity and all sorts of weird creatures reside in this ancient place in ways that make little sense. Clearly older than humanity but its purpose is unclear – is there even anyone left in charge anymore.  Its unsettling and undeniably an alien environment. The reader alongside Gary doesn’t know what to expect – this was way beyond a standard first contact tale. The humans are just something in the way or possibly something to play with.

What makes it doubly horrific is that Gary is just so engaging.  He has humour and isn’t the standard lead lantern jaw character he is very much just the driver of the team shuttle but very glad to finally make his dream reality.  In alternating chapters explaining his current predicament we get his insights into the build up to the expedition and the playful set of astronauts who came together to make history. Little human moments such as a lead scientist with a Doctor Who scarf; a team learning Danish to annoy those back home and a Russian stating that the USSR has no doubt already been there.  It’s all quite light and funny pricking the idea of a big 2001 style sombre mission which makes bad things happening to these people more upsetting and emotionally investing. Gary’s journey I think is the most tragic as he just wants to get home but as we start to look around and pull the pieces of the tale together, we realise that is unlikely and something has a more sinister intention in mind for our lead.  Tchaikovsky builds up the tension and when the plot is finally revealed its both monstrous and heart-breaking in what Gary is hiding from.

Very hard to read this and not think of Event Horizon and its very much a horror SF tale but I think with a better emphasis on character. Gary reminds me of the lead narrator in the Martian – positive and funny but here rather than survival against impossible odds and science saving the day we instead have a battle against something so much more advanced than humanity that it doesn’t even come across as human. Is there any escape…. well have a read and find out but this one will creep into your mind long afterwards….