LitStack Review: The Wanderers by Meg Howrey

by Sharon Browning

The Wanderers
Meg Howrey
G. P. Putnam’s Sons
Release Date:  March 14, 2017
ISBN 978-0-3995-7473-4

This book…wow. I read a lot of books; a lot of good books. But this one? Wow.

The Wanderers is a work of fiction but it feels real, taking place in the imminent present day surrounding the final training simulation of the first manned expedition to Mars. This effort is not undertaken by NASA or any government’s agency, but by a private enterprise known as Prime Space (think Space-X, complete with a charismatic forward-thinker as CEO).

So what makes this book stand out? Let’s see… where do I start?

First, the characters are incredibly authentic, not shiny archetypes or brooding anomalies. The three astronauts chosen for the mission are veterans, ones who should work well together according to the metrics employed during their selection; all are trained engineers, able to deal with complications. Yoshi, from Japan, is the youngest, at thirty-seven. Russian Sergei has spent time on the International Space Station; Helen, the sole American, has retired from NASA with an impeccable reputation intact. As readers, we are able to listen in on each astronaut’s innermost thoughts in turn, and even there they are intensely focused but absolutely credible.

The planned three year MarsNOW mission will gather vital information both physical and psychological, and set the groundwork for forthcoming trips to the red planet. In preparation for the expedition, an intense seventeen month simulation is to be undertaken: a six-and-a-half month outbound trip, thirty days on the planet (truncated down from what will be in actuality an eighteen month stay), and a nine month return trip. The simulation, known as Eidolon, will be more fully immersive than has ever been seen before, utilizing cutting edge technology and highly vetted methodologies. Along with the monotony of living in small spaces for extended periods of time, there will be sudden and potentially catastrophic complications thrown at the astronauts, testing their ability to think and respond under intense pressure. Always, always, they will be closely monitored as to their physical and mental capacity to react and endure.

Even in this highly specialized narrative, we are grounded in what feels real. The technical jargon – what there is of it – is presented seamlessly, with explication so effortless that we aren’t even aware we’re being briefed on anything. What the astronauts learn, we understand. What they think in even the deepest recesses of their minds – concerns, fears, hopes, elations, questions – we can relate to. While we may not ever find ourselves on this journey, we have no problems riding along with them.

Likewise, the astronauts’ family members and Prime Space staffers presented in the narrative are equally – perhaps even more so – familiar, growing in individuality and even idiosyncrasy as time passes and they must deal with the presence yet absence of their coworkers and loved ones.  Without undo external drama we see that while the astronauts are under constant pressure to perform at their highest levels of competence, there are strains placed on those around them, as well, stressors that are internal and uniquely personal.

Author Meg Howrey thankfully allows these stressors to be enough; there is no blustering cinematic drama here, no underlying agenda, no forced sensationalism meted out via gut-busting aliens, terrorists, or simmering sexual tensions. The drama that exists is rooted in the challenges the astronauts and their families face: technological, psychological, emotional. But there is also an elation at what it going on, a sense of gratitude, and wonder, and determination.

Beyond that, the writing in The Wanderers is simply superlative. It is a common fear for me, when reading something that can be best classified as “literary fiction”, that the writing will become so esoteric and so stylized as to make my reading of it more a chore than joy. Not so with The Wanderers! While Ms. Howrey’s emphasis on character requires a deeper mindset than more action-driven texts, and while her vocabulary and dramatic phrasing are indeed astute, it all flows so cohesively and so effortlessly that I was able to lose myself in the story, rather than feeling like I was on the outside looking in.

I truly found The Wanderers to be one of the most enjoyable reads of the year, and I anticipate it to continue to be ranked high in my esteem as time goes by. It’s definitely worth all the accolades it’s bound to get – and definitely worth putting at the top of your “to be read” pile.

~ Sharon Browning

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