Meg Howrey, Scribner, 2017, ISBN 978-1-4711-4666-1, 370pp
In ancient Roman myth Mars was the god of war. In the Roman military pantheon, he was second only to Jupiter, the god of thunder and king of the gods. Today we are more likely to know Mars as the fourth planet from the Sun, the red planet, the next one out from us. Mars is A Big Thing. NASA is developing the capabilities needed to send humans to an asteroid by 2025 and Mars in the 2030s. I was surprised to learn that there are eight spacecraft on Mars that are carrying out tasks that I suppose must be useful. In the early 1960s J F Kennedy said that man must go to the moon. After all, the moon is there; why should we not go? And the yanks would get one over the Soviets if they got there first. Now the moon is conquered, Mars would be a reasonable next target. The trouble is that it is an awfully long way away. The distance varies; in 2003 Earth and Mars were 56 million km apart and that’s the closest they had been for 50,000 years.
So, how long would it take to get there? That’s a tricky question to answer; it depends, of course, how fast you go. The fastest spacecraft launched from Earth was NASA's New Horizons mission. It visited Pluto in 2015. This travelled at 58,000 kph and at that speed it would take about 162 days to get to Mars (actually between 39 days at the closest approach and 289 days at the farthest). Of course, that’s not the whole story. Because of the way the planets each move it turns out that there is a reasonable launch window only every 26 months. We don’t need to go into all the physics here, but this is all the stuff behind Meg Howrey’s novel “The Wanderers”. The novel is about three astronauts training for the first-ever mission to Mars. Yet it’s not a science fiction novel. It’s far cleverer than that.
The Red Planet
The book is about a simulation of the journey to Mars, landing on the planet and returning to Earth. The three astronauts have been carefully chosen, not surprisingly, for their personal attributes and their ability to work together. The simulation is designed to look at the way they work together, the inter-personal stresses that result and the impacts on their families. The simulation lasts for almost eighteen months and this is long enough for the reader (and the astronauts) to wonder if it might not be the real thing. Howrey was a ballet dancer and she says in one interview that I read that “the only thing dancing ballet prepares you for is being a ballet dancer, but then it’s so ridiculously difficult and physically demanding that everything after it — even writing novels — seems a little bit easier.” That may be so and I cannot say whether ballet dancing is a better preparation than any other for writing about the way relationships between people develop and change. For that is, at its heart, what this book is about. It’s also a book about the limits of human endurance, it’s a psychology book.
Howrey has researched the novel extensively. She booked time in a sensory deprivation tank to see what micro-gravity and darkness feels like. It shows through in the book. As you read it you get a sense that its writer knows what she’s talking about; in fact, until I learned she had been a ballet dancer I would have said she was a physicist. I found the book captivating and found myself wondering whether the book was about a simulation or about the real trip. I called into Moruya Books last week (and as you know when I do that I cannot leave without relieving Janice of some of her stock) and I saw that she has copies of “The Wanderers” on her shelves. Go there now and buy one.