4.5 out of 5 Midnight Stars
This is what I needed. This was like a long, tall, cold drink of universe. We have two warring sorts of setting – the frigid night of the polar ice cap (or near enough to it for government work) and the black empty reaches of space. Capped off with beautiful but straightforward prose and well developed characters – this was so what I wanted it to be.
I love the apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic tale, in all its forms. Zombies, plague, war, catastrophe, alien, vampire, whatever, just give it to me. I love that the genre has been expanding beyond the grisly, action adventure tales over the last few years to an almost literary level– like The Girl with All the Gifts, The Reapers are the Angels, The Forest of Hands and Teeth, even going back several years to The Road. Into the Forest is even older. This has the survival element, great characters and gorgeous writing – but it’s not an edge of your seat thrill ride – there are some really exciting, or tense, or scary moments, but it’s much more of a literary, character driven piece than most. The settings of the two storylines dictate that. There is plenty of mystery as well, especially on the Arctic side of things.
Continents and countries mean nothing to him; it was only the sky that moved him, the happenings on the other side of the atmospheric window.
The first person we meet is Augustine, or Augie. He’s an astronomer in his late seventies. When the military came to the remote arctic outpost and tried to evacuate the researchers, Augie stayed. He wasn’t quite sure why they were removing them, they weren’t specific; later he says there were rumors of war. He knows he’s too old and too set in his ways, and his work is the only thing that’s ever meant anything to him. Augie is, frankly, an asshole. He’s all mind, all calculations. Other people are only for his amusement. When he’s no longer amused, he’s no longer involved. He has always sought solitude; he’s always chasing the sky and what it might teach him. Now, at the end of his life, he ponders if things should have been different, if he could have made them different, or if his difficult childhood sculpted him this way.
No doubt much of this reflection is because of Iris. After the last plane lifted off the tarmac, taking the last humans he expected to ever see, she appeared; a small child, past the age of reason, but still unable to tell him where she’d come from or who she belonged to. She hardly speaks, and prefers to hide most of the time. He expected them to come back and get her, but no one did. Not exactly what he’d had in mind when he’d sealed his fate to the outpost. He tried to contact the outside world and tell them about her, but no one answered. It’s like the world beyond is gone. Their only company is the aurora borealis, the howl of the wolves, and the shape of the polar bear, silhouetted against the backdrop of the night sky.
Sully is a mission specialist on the Aether, the first mission to Jupiter to study the planet and its moons. Shortly after the return trip began, they lost all contact with earth. Future stories about earth based missions into space are always multicultural, it seems. It’s not an American mission. Ivanov, a geologist with a bad attitude, is Russian. Thebes, a South African black man, is the spiritual center of the team. I was unsure if Devi, who is described as Hindi was American or not. She’s a sort of mechanical/engineering genius. But Sully, Commander Harper and the pilot, Tal, are Americans. So it’s a diverse crew, as opposed to the Arctic side of the tale, which is all white folk.
The only part that didn’t ring true for me was how quickly the morale between the team members splintered. When I think of American military, I think of how rigid and controlled they remain, no matter the situation (or so all the fiction I have read has taught me!) Regardless of nationality, you’re not going to send people up into space unless they are problem solvers, people who know how to handle adversity and maintain chain of command and continue to do their jobs, regardless of the situation. They’re supposed to be trained for this, and for all they know, there’s just something wrong with the equipment. Why give up hope after such a short amount of time? But without input from earth, hopelessness and the fear of what awaits them quickly drives wedges between the crew members. They all retreat into themselves. They continue to work on data streaming in from the probes they left behind, as long as they can. Then Devi slowly begins to drift, overlooking important maintenance. Tal, the pilot, has very little to do, so he spends his time arguing with Ivanov and playing video games. What is the point of all this work? What if there is no one to see it? What happened to the loved ones they left behind?
In both instances, these could lapse into pages and pages of characters naval gazing, but of course, we get some drama. Both settings are forbidding, beautiful and iconic representations of isolation, not to mention incredibly dangerous. You’ve got the peril of deep space, polar bears, frigid temperatures… the peril of deep space… and of course, the total radio silence of the end of the world. There is no input – no idea what’s happened. Neither science outpost, the one on land or the one in space, can get any sounds or radio response AT ALL. And both of those situations cause danger and adventure, as they try and reach out to anyone that might still be out there.
There isn’t only the similarity of the two settings, but the two scientists. Both are independent, have a lot of painful relationship stuff in their past, and feel like they’re kind of broken when it comes to relating to other people. There were some things I expected to happen, so there was a smidge of predictability, but this story was so wonderful, so beautifully written, so human and there were a lot of wonderful surprises. I could say so much more, but I don’t want to ruin anything for anyone. I strongly recommend it. I see this being something I will come back to and read again and again. I will comment on the last bit of the book in the last paragraph, regarding the nature of endings – so please beware spoilers beyond this point.
SPOILERS BE LURKIN’ BELOW, MATEYS!
Ok – so it’s a vague, non-conclusive ending. This is not for you if you don’t like those kind of endings. It’s even vaguer than the end of The Girl with all the Gifts but not as vague as The Mist.