Publisher: HarperCollins Voyager Impulse
Source: Review copy
The starship Magellan is on its way to the planet Horizon in the Iota Persei system, 34 light years from Earth. When the crew is awoken from deep sleep six weeks ahead of schedule, it’s soon clear to commander Cait Dyson why – her co-pilot Sharpe is dead in his cradle while Bren, a transhuman who can communicate telepathically with the ship’s AI, is comatosed. Not only that, the AI itself, known as Phillips, is offline and when they do manage to wake it up, it appears to have lost its mind and gone mad.
In the confines of the vessel, in this distant part of space, so far from home both in time and distance, Cait is determined to solve the mystery. But the remaining crew is as much hindrance as help. Despite being so few in number, the crew is divided into three political camps, defined on Earth by geography – Pax Americana, the Compact of Asian Peoples and the relatively neutral European Union. An uneasy pact between the three had enabled the launch of the Magellan but now, all these years later, it seems that this is at an end. A message from mission control reveals that Earth is no longer the planet they left. War and environmental sabotage has ruined the planet, the political system turned on its head, and the purpose of Magellan’s flight, even the point of the vessel itself, has changed. With the ground literally swept out from under her feet, Cait has nobody she can trust and nowhere to turn.
Horizon is a relatively short novel and it is tense and fraught. Cait is limited in what she knows, suspicious of everyone while wanting to trust them all, and this uncertainly and anxiety is transmitted to us, the reader. The uncertainty is intensified by our lack of information about the nature of Bren and Phillips as well as those in mission control. We never see a ship functioning well, thrown as we are, along with Cait, into the crisis from the the very first page. We never know what anyone is thinking, only having their political allegiances to go on, and as the mysteries, not to mention the deaths, increase the atmosphere within the ship and the novel becomes more and more claustrophobic.
The premise of Horizon is an intriguing one – a crew sleeps its way to a distant planet while Earth’s political status quo collapses, leaving the crew to deal with the consequences when it wakes up. I like the sound of this. I also like a couple of the characters, especially Cait and Nadira and the relationship between the two is an interesting one. The mystery itself is appealing and pleasingly puzzling.
However, the novel focuses on the conflict between the political factions almost entirely at the expense of everything else. This means that, for my taste, there isn’t nearly enough about the mission, the destination and the ship – the science fiction in other words. Bren is an intriguing human/AI hybrid but we learn far too little about her to understand her. I would also have liked to have learned much more about what was going on back on Earth. There are glimpses of something rather special, especially in the relationships between crew members and their Earthbound family members, now much aged, but glimpses they remain.
Perhaps in a longer novel there might have been more context but Horizon‘s focus is on a crew torn apart by hostility, fear and suspicion. It’s not all gloom, characters do clutch at the threads of friendships, but I like wonder in my science fiction reading and I found little of that in Horizon. What it does it does well but I would have liked much, much more.