Outer space terrifies me; The endless darkness dotted with stars; The abyss expanding into infinity; Our galaxy and its periphery, the mystery of what lies beyond. I usually avoid books that delve into deep space, favoring novels grounded on earth, narratives stabilized by the world’s environment, oxygen, water, trees, and gravity. It was surprising to me, then, when I was drawn to and read two novels about space exploration in January. Perhaps even more surprising was that I enjoyed both.
The first was Meg Howrey’s The Wanderers (#5), a book author Ruth Ozeki said “left [her] awestruck.” The plot revolves around three seasoned astronauts as they embark on a simulated mission to Mars in the Utah desert. The simulation is meant to prepare them for the real thing, both the day-to-day mundane tasks and any possible complications that may arise one their long journey. Howrey excavates the working relationships and personal bonds that the astronauts develop with each other, and how they relate to and connect with family they’ve left at “home.” In an environment so manufactured and controlled, the astronauts’ complex and emotional humanness shines through. On the surface, the novel is about journeying to outer space, but at the core, it’s a novel about what makes us unique, what brings us together and what tears us apart, what makes us human, full of love and yearning, and inescapably fallible.
Good Morning, Midnight (#9) by Lily Brooks-Dalton approaches outer space and the fragility of Earth with a post-apocalyptic lens. In it, Augustine, an aged astronomer in the Arctic, declines the last plane back to civilization before the radio waves from the rest of the planet go eerily silent. While Augustine wrestles with his solitude and the vast snowy expanse around him, a team of astronauts aboard the Aether is on their way back to Earth from a mission to Jupiter. When their contacts on Earth stop responding, they know something horrible has happened, and are left to grapple with the loss of their families and the end of humanity as they know it from the outer reaches of space, where the bleak and infinite expanse around them is both a savior from whatever awaits them at home and an overwhelming, uninhabitable force.
Both of these novels intimate that at the heart of space exploration or any exhilarating and alienating mission into the unknown, is a desire to connect, with fellow humans, with a fear that dwells in the deep parts of the psyche, with undying hope, with a singular kind of aloneness, with mystery. And threaded through each of the plots is a longing for the familiar, a desire to return home, even when “home” is a big, vast planet, even when that home is forever changed, existing outside of time and space and only in memory.