Orbit | 2019 (25 July) | 364p | Review copy | Buy the book
Sally Jansen has spent years trying to put the past behind her, never able to stop feeling responsible for the loss of her crewman. Jansen had been Commander of NASA’s mission to Mars. They didn’t make it and one man was lost. NASA’s plans for space exploration were indefinitely shelved. But now, twenty years later, NASA needs its most experienced astronaut once more. An object is heading through the Solar System towards Earth and it is deccelerating, unnaturally. There can be only one explanation. It is alien. NASA rushes to put together a team, to get a vessel into space to explore this entity, now designated as ’21’. NASA isn’t alone. A private company has also despatched a ship. The race is on to make first contact. But with what?
I’m a big fan of First Contact science fiction and I loved the premise of The Last Astronaut, reading it as soon as it arrived. The style takes a bit of getting used to but I soon fell for it. There’s a dispassionate feel, we and the narrator are slightly distanced from events. It’s suggested that what we’re reading comes from a future book, an account of the mission written by David Wellington, and it includes brief extracts and personality introductions. It all supports the sense that this is a critical mission, with everything depending on it.
The crew comprises a bunch of very different personalities and, as is the way with novels set aboard spaceships on potentially suicide missions, there is tension and conflict. Jansen adds something to this. She is blamed for what happened all those years ago and everybody looks at her as if she’s some kind of evil talisman. I wasn’t completely convinced by the characterisation. Jansen is not a reliable commander. She acts impetuously and then lives to regret it, unlike some of her crew. There is something a little stereotypical about the crew, with the computer nerd Sunny Stevens who dreams of becoming an astronaut and the military man Windsor Hawkins. I did hope that the characters wouldn’t develop in the way I predicted but they did. Nevertheless, I was very interested indeed in what they were up to.
I loved the descriptions of 21. Some of what happens there is predictable and familiar, taking us into the world of horror at the expense of science fiction, but it’s thoroughly exciting and I didn’t want to put it down. This is an adventure but it’s also a tale of courage and sacrifice. And at times it’s utterly terrifying.