When three astronauts rehearse a trip to Mars, they have to face their past and each other. Some quiet scifi that’s cerebral and character-driven.

the wanderers meg howrey cover

I’m a big scifi person. I’ve been a Star Wars fan since my early teens, read my way through Azimov, Frank Herbert and Dan Simmons during high school, and have since watched a lot of movies and TV shows and read tons of science-fiction books. I like the genre. It’s a way to imagine the consequences of our actions in different scenarios, whether we’re going towards a Handmaid’s Tale world or an Oryx and Crake one—both of which are just as likely.

I mean, even something like Stranger In A Strange Land is used by polyamorous communities as a discussion point. It appeared in the book reading list of my local poly community not too long ago.

Hopefully I don’t have to convince you that science-fiction can be good literature. You already know that.

But what does this have to do with sex or relationships? Well, on its face, not very much really. But isn’t good literature about relationships anyway? And it’s a scientific fact that reading psychological fiction can make us more empathic. And empathy helps build strong relationships. So, I guess you can count my book reviews as suggestions for becoming better at relationships!

So on my birthday back in April, I went to buy a few books, and this one attracted my attention. It was about not a trip to Mars, like The Martian, but about the training to go there, something that has actually happened (although the novel is completely fictional!).

So, bring together a crew of three experienced astronauts: Helen, American; Sergei, Russian; and Yoshi, Japanese. Then put them in a super-realistic simulation of Mars—complete with fake spaceship launch, VR-powered Martian landscape, and return trip. What happens to them, psychologically, during that time?

This is the question Meg Howrey tries to answer in The Wanderers. If you enjoy your science-fiction more action-driven, you won’t really like this; this is a character-driven novel that uses the Martian mission as a framework for the characters exploring their relationships to themselves and to others. And everyone goes through a transformation, not just the astronauts. The psychologist observing them and their family members do, too.

Howrey writes an exquisite existential tale that digs to the core of human identity. For example, Mireille, Helen’s daugther, grapples with her reality as the mostly ordinary daughter of an extraordinary woman. Dmitri, Sergei’s son, has to come to terms with his sexually while adapting to his new life in the United States. And Madoka, Yoshi’s wife, struggles to find meaning in human connection while selling robots across the world.

If you like tales of interconnected characters who ponder their relationships to one another and grow from them, you’ll love this book. There’s too little character-driven science-fiction because some people still see it as a “genre”, but increasingly it is coming to be considered as valuable literary creation, and it is books like Howrey’s that are paving the way towards a full inclusion of science-fiction in the literary canon.

I read it in about a week, fascinated by the depth of the characters and how skillfully Howrey produces different voices and languages for each character. You can hear the Russian roughness in Sergei’s English, and Japanese propriety in Yoshi’s. The language ranges from beautifully poetic to straightforwardly practical; the range and depth of Howrey’s style is amazing.

And when you finish the book, you will be left wondering about a mystery that will rattle your brain for days afterwards.

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