The Wanderers: A wonderfully intimate, character-driven story

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The Wanderers by Meg Howrey science fiction book reviewsThe Wanderers by Meg Howrey science fiction book reviewsThe Wanderers by Meg Howrey

The Wanderers
(2017), by Meg Howrey, focuses on a simulated mission (code name: Eidolon) to Mars more realistic than anything ever attempted before. Prime Space has chosen three exemplary, experienced astronauts (American Helen, Japanese Yoshi, and Russian Sergei) for a 17-month, fully immersive simulation in the Utah desert in preparation for the real thing two years later. We join the “journey” via their 3rd-person POVs, but are also given a broader view thanks to their family members (one might consider them “satellites” orbiting the main characters — always tied to them): Helen’s actress daughter Mireille, Yoshi’s robot-salesperson wife Madoka, and Sergei’s sexually-uncertain 15-year-old son Dmitri. We also get a POV from Luke, one of the “Obbers” — the Prime Space employees tasked with observing the crew and liaising with the family members. With sharply realized interior worlds and vividly mapped family interactions, Howrey has crafted a warmly human and skillfully structured story. Despite a few minor issues, I liked nearly all of it and absolutely loved parts of it, making it an easy book to recommend.

This is a book centered in and on people, so while the Mars simulation is the vehicle for plot, and underpins a major theme (more on that later), it takes a backseat as far as actual action goes. Ignore the blurb that compares The Wanderers to The Martian; there is none of that overt tension, suspense, or action. The conflict here is personal — between an individual’s sense of private self and public self, and between two people who live together and struggle to understand each other. All of these relationships are in some sort of difficulty: Sergei is just wrapping up an amicable divorce, but the real struggle is communicating with his son Dmitri, who is himself having his own difficulty as he sets out on his first same-sex relationship. Helen and Mirielle have always had to circle around the fact that Helen has often been away (far, far away — on the space station), choosing her job obligations over being home with her daughter. The death of Helen’s husband/Mirielle’s father has complicated their relationship, but he complicated things while alive, as well. Meanwhile, Yoshi and Madoka have marital issues, though one wouldn’t know it to see/hear them. Their interior monologues as they navigate these relationships and reach back as well to their own somewhat unresolved pasts (both Sergei and Helen have differing father issues) is deftly handled and often beautifully eloquent, sometimes in language but often more simply in the way Howrey just so utterly nails how things can feel, how people think.

Along with the strong characterization and excellent style, I loved what Howrey does with the whole theme of “simulation,” which is really the keystone word for the novel. The three astronauts are “on” a simulation the whole time of course, with lots of embedded“mini-sims” (they have personalized exercises — Sergei snowshoes through pine forests or runs on a beach, a virtual Earth is visible in a virtual “window,” etc.), but everyone portrayed here is “simulating” something. The astronauts fill out questionnaires not with the truth but with the answers they think the “Obbers” want — the answers that “simulate” the perfect astronaut, the perfect team. Yoshi and Makado simulate a marriage, Helen simulates motherhood and emotions (she’s a bit on the spectrum, has a hard time feeling emotion and so often has to intellectually gauge what the correct emotional response might be). Dmitiri simulates a straight teen boy. Mirielle is, again, an actress — her whole career is built on performance, but she also “performs” being the perfect PR daughter, though at one big dinner she fantasizes about dumping that persona and throwing a plate of food against the wall, shouting “Simulate this!” Makado’s job is selling caretaker robots (literal simulacrums) who “simulate” caring. There’s even a Kabuki show (the first time the astronauts gather). The question raised time and time again, sometimes between the lines, sometimes (usually via the highly self-aware Mirielle) is: what is the distinction between the simulated self and the “real” self? Or is there even one? This metaphysical question raises itself in the actual plot when one of the astronauts begins to suspect that they aren’t actually on a simulated mission but have actually been sent to Mars.

It’s a multi-layered, thoughtful exploration of the concept and, wisely, Howrey (I’d say) doesn’t offer us any answers, but leaves us to think about it in relation to these characters but also obviously in our own lives.

As for those few issues I mentioned above, Dmitri’s story felt like it was dropped for too long and so seemed a bit unbalanced, and while the “are we on Earth or not” subplot wasn’t a major issue (even calling it a subplot is perhaps a bit strong), it seemed unnecessary and too expected or predictable a plot point, especially in a novel that otherwise felt so originally and individual. But as noted, these were minor quibbles. The Wanderers is, for the vast majority of its length, a wonderfully realized novel, intimate and grand at the same time albeit in different ways, and one I highly recommend.

Published March 14, 2017. In an age of space exploration, we search to find ourselves. In four years, aerospace giant Prime Space will put the first humans on Mars. Helen Kane, Yoshihiro Tanaka, and Sergei Kuznetsov must prove they’re the crew for the historic voyage by spending seventeen months in the most realistic simulation ever created. Constantly observed by Prime Space’s team of “Obbers,” Helen, Yoshi, and Sergei must appear ever in control. But as their surreal pantomime progresses, each soon realizes that the complications of inner space are no less fraught than those of outer space. The borders between what is real and unreal begin to blur, and each astronaut is forced to confront demons past and present, even as they struggle to navigate their increasingly claustrophobic quarters—and each other. Astonishingly imaginative, tenderly comedic, and unerringly wise, The Wanderers explores the differences between those who go and those who stay, telling a story about the desire behind all exploration: the longing for discovery and the great search to understand the human heart.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is lately spending much of his time trying to finish a book-length collection of essays and a full-length play. His prior work has appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other journals and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of several Best American Essay anthologies. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, co-writing the Malazan Empire re-read at Tor.com, or working as an English adjunct, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course, the ultimate frisbee field, or trying to keep up with his wife's flute and his son's trumpet on the clarinet he just picked up this month.

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One comment

  1. This sounds wonderful, Bill! Great review!

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