Sunday, 24/9/2017 | 7:24 UTC+0

The Wanderers is a beautiful take on the human cost of a mission to Mars

With private companies such as SpaceX looking to visit Mars in the coming decades, science fiction is poised to become reality. In Meg Howrey’s latest novel, The Wanderers, she explores the run-up to such a mission, and the toll that it would take on the people chosen to first set foot on the Martian surface.

Howrey writes that her story was shaped in part by Mars500, a simulation designed to test people psychologically in close quarters for over 500 days. The novel takes that idea a bit further. In the near future, a private space firm called Prime Space (a handy stand-in for SpaceX) is getting ready for a Mars mission. The first mission’s crew — American astronaut Helen Kane, Russian cosmonaut Sergei Kuznetsov, and Japanese astronaut Yoshihiro Tanaka — undertake a ridiculously detailed 17-month simulation of a mission to Mars and back. The mission, called Eidolon, is planned out to the last detail. The crews have a formal farewell with their families, their practice spaceship is an exact replica of the real one, and they space out their communications to account for the increasing distance away from Earth as they “travel.”

Helen, Sergei, and Yoshihiro make a good team — Prime Space selected them because they will most likely get along with one another in close proximity. All are experienced astronauts, but this mission is longer and more intense than anything they’ve ever done before. On top of the isolation, they’re closely monitored by their employer, creating a sort of psychological cold war between the astronauts and mission control. The astronauts know how to work their tests and evaluations, and mission control’s watchers learn how to read each of the astronauts and their family members. Each are looking for flaws or breakdowns in the program, and while neither are in overt conflict with one another, they don’t want to screw up their chances for a real, live Mars mission.

Image: Putnam

As the astronauts get to “Mars,” they’re fine-tuning the details of the real mission that they all want to undertake. The detailed nature of the simulation makes them forget at times that they’re on Earth, and even then, strange occurrences make them question the very nature of the experiment they’re undertaking. Sergei’s helmet malfunctions while during a simulated Martian EVA, and he sees a landscape that doesn’t look like anything on Earth, leading him to believe that they might actually be on Mars. Were they deceived by Prime Space, or is the simulation just throwing the astronauts a curveball? It’s not readily clear, and Howrey leaves that particular twist ambiguous.

While the book initially looks like a techno-thriller such as Andy Weir’s The Martian, Howrey largely steers clear of the technical drama and focuses squarely on the characters and the toll that the mission takes on them. As the astronauts go out and back, we see them work through the isolation, learning not only how the others work and think, but also how they individually fit into the world and their families.

Howrey doesn’t just focus on the experiences of the astronauts and Eidolon. Their families and the support crew are also along for the ride in their own way. Helen’s daughter Mireille works to come to terms with forming her own identity as an actress away from her mother’s fame. Sergei’s son Dmitri navigates his sexual coming of age, while trying to figure out what his relationship is with his distant father. Yoshi’s wife Madoka has always felt more comfortable with her husband away. As the astronauts go through their mission, they contend with the complexities of coexisting with family members that they’ve alienated by this separation and their careers. As the astronauts return “home,” they’re confronted with a paradox: they miss their families, especially with a better understanding of who they are, but they are terrified that they would leave them again in a heartbeat for the real mission.

The resulting mix provides plenty of food for thought in a world that will very likely contend with a real mission to Mars in the near future. The Apollo missions to the Moon were short trips compared to a trip to Mars, and the examination of the human condition during that long period of solitude is ripe for fiction. Howrey’s book is a beautiful examination of the cost that such a trip would extract on those going to Mars, and it shows that some of the biggest obstacles to overcome will be the people themselves, rather than the hardware.

Photography by Andrew Liptak / The Verge