The Wanderers is fiction that 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).
The characters not shiny archetypes or brooding anomalies, but completely relatable. 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 sudden and daunting 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, and even there they are intensely focused but absolutely credible.
The three year earthbound MarsNOW mission’s aim is to gather vital information and set the groundwork for forthcoming trips to the red planet. An intrinsic aspect of the mission is an intense seventeen month simulation, encompassing 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 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.
Yet even in this highly specialized narrative, we as readers are grounded in what feels real. The technical jargon is presented seamlessly, with explication so effortless that we aren’t even aware we’re being briefed. What the astronauts learn, we understand. What they think in even the deepest recesses of their minds -fears, hopes, elations – we can relate to. While we are not truly on this journey, we have no problem riding along with those who are.
Likewise, both the astronauts’ families and corporate staffers are also familiar, growing in individuality as time passes and they must deal with the presence yet absence of their coworkers and loved ones. Without undo 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 – thank heavens – 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 deemed “literary fiction”, that the writing will become so esoteric and stylized as to make reading 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. And I daresay, so will you.