Meg Howrey's The Wanderers is a meditative study of the human psyche

Plans are afoot to send mankind to Mars within two decades under a Nasa blueprint and, since January, six scientists have been living in isolation on a Hawaiian volcano in a mock eight-month mission to the hostile Red Planet.

This is the fifth such simulation by Nasa, the United States agency, in the race to chart the space frontier. Russia, too, ran its own simulation with six crew members - for 17 months in 2010 and 2011.

It is the latter that forms the inspiration for The Wanderers, Meg Howrey's divine third novel that is also her first foray into science fiction. Her debut Blind Sight (2011) was a coming-of-age story, while The Cranes Dance (2012) was a tribute to her past as a professional ballet dancer.

Even with such diverse themes, the humanity of her characters forms the common thread across the three novels.



    S By Meg Howrey G.P. Putnam's Sons/ Paperback/384 pages/ $29.91/Books Kinokuniya

    4/5 stars

Howrey is blessed with a flair for conveying everyday sentimentality without being mawkish and the focus on human psychology makes The Wanderers brilliantly inventive as a science-fiction novel.

For it is much more than the well-researched technical parts; it is also a meditative study of the human psyche in stoicism through isolation, paranoia, grief, fear, loss and confusion, with Mission Control the Big Brother keeping an eye 24/7, acting as a gatekeeper for news and observing their chats with loved ones.

The flipside to all this is pretence - and there is so much of it here as the elite astronauts erect walls to shield themselves during the dry run so they will not be deemed unworthy for the historic actual voyage.

Howrey draws back the curtain on the personal lives of the three astronauts housed in an immersive simulator in the Utah wilderness for 17 months, as part of the Eidolon mission run by fictional private company Prime Space.

This brings to mind shades of SpaceX, a space transport services company founded by Mr Elon Musk of Tesla fame, which has Mars colonisation ambitions of its own.

The narrative tapestry flits among the characters and their loved ones, each coping with his own skeletons in the closet.

Helen Kane, a retired American astronaut with two Nasa missions under her belt, is grappling with her husband's death in a freak accident. Kane's daughter Mireille is a struggling actress who does not want to live in her mother's shadow.

Yoshihiro Tanaka is an eager-to- please Japanese astronaut whose relationship with his wife Madoka has entered autopilot mode; and Russian cosmonaut Sergei Kuznetsov is divorced with two sons, one of whom is coming to terms with his sexual identity.

But 17 months is a long time to be isolated and, pretty soon, the lines between what is real and what is illusion start to blur. As a persistent unease starts to cloud the crew, it eats into the reader as well.

I could not shake off a sense of foreboding that the dry run may not be all hunky-dory.

The simulation was realistic - including months-long return flights - and the headquarters threw everything but the kitchen sink at the astronauts, including mock atmospheric anomalies and equipment malfunctions.

But there were also unexplained incidents, which the characters allow themselves moments to forget - throwing up the question, was it real? Or, could the dry-run be a guise for a real mission?

This is a question Howrey does not answer. But what she offers is an introspective read that shows that, perhaps, inner space could be as perilous as outer space.

If you like this, read: Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel (Pan Macmillan, 2015, $19.94, Books Kinokuniya). A deeply disquieting dystopian novel in which a troupe performs Shakespeare to survivors 20 years after a deadly virus killed most of the world.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 25, 2017, with the headline 'Meditative space mission'. Print Edition | Subscribe