’The Wanderers’ is mission-to-Mars fiction with a twist

  • This image released by G.P. Putnam's Sons shows "The Wanderers," by Meg Howrey. (G.P. Putnam's Sons via AP)

Associated Press
Wednesday, April 05, 2017

In The Wanderers, a private corporation called Prime Space is financing the first crewed mission to Mars and training three astronauts: an American woman, a Russian man and a Japanese man.

Helen, Sergei and Yoshi will undergo an elaborate, 17-month simulation that will use virtual reality to mimic the round-trip mission to the Red Planet. Attention to detail will include goodbyes to their families, a realistic-feeling launch, an outbound trip through “space” and 30 days on “Mars” – actually an unpopulated area of Utah.

The training mission is called Eidolon. It’s a high-stakes test to see how they perform as a team. The ambitious crew must prove they are worthy of the real mission to Mars. The trio will be monitored by corporation observers who will joke that their jobs are as dull as watching Chekhov in Space.

Meg Howrey’s novel starts at a Chekhovian crawl, but picks up after 100 pages when the simulated mission gets rolling at last and her research on interplanetary spaceflight can shine.

Her near-future premise is based on Mars500, a real-life experiment completed in 2011 by a six-person international crew. Howrey’s Prime Space nods to billionaire Elon Musk’s SpaceX company. Last week, President Donald Trump signed legislation adding human exploration of Mars to NASA’s mission.

In the novel, as the mission adjusts from a 24-hour Earth day to a slightly longer Martian “sol,” the crew faces increasingly stressful equipment malfunctions. Their troubles may or may not be part of Prime Space’s simulation. Duct tape is employed. Tensions rise.

But the crew must not let the company know that the pressure is getting to them or that they’re having bad dreams. Helen, a NASA veteran with three space missions on her resume, continually probes her feelings, wondering if her emotions will feel more authentic on Mars, or if Mars will feel like a simulation.

Rarely does she shed her defenses. In one such moment, an awestruck Yoshi sees Helen for who she really is: “What a large thing it is to be Helen, what infinite space she is,” Howrey writes. “And then to be seen by her. As if, just for once, the universe understood him, came up with a name for him, instead of the other way around.”

All three crew members worry that their thirst for space exploration has crippled their family bonds. The families left behind are going through some rough times, too. Helen’s daughter, Mirielle, struggles in the shadow of her famous space-traveling mom. In separate chapters, she and two other family members experiment with their public identities. Sergei’s 16-year-old son nervously explores his sexuality. Yoshi’s wife speaks honestly only to a robot.

The family sections give The Wanderers more opportunities to play with notions of counterfeits and authenticity, beyond the obvious stage of the simulated mission. Helen doesn’t ask anyone at Prime Space to explain her mission’s name, Eidolon, but if she’d checked Wikipedia, she would have learned that an eidolon is a phantom in human form. The most famous eidolon appeared in Greek literature as the likeness of another Helen – Helen of Troy.

Is the Eidolon mission all it appears to be? Or more? The unfolding of that mystery launches this plausible space tale into higher realms of enjoyment.