This post is a part of my 2020 Arthur C. Clarke reading project where I will be reading and reviewing all the nominated titles. You can found out my thoughts about this project in my introduction post: 2020 Arthur C. Clarke Award Shortlist: Thoughts, Predictions & Reading Project.
Genre : Science Fiction
Publisher : Head of Zeus
Length : 624 pages
Format : eBook
Rating : 2 stars
Publication Date : April 4th 2019
The sun is bloated, diseased, dying perhaps. Beneath its baneful light, Shadrapar, last of all cities, harbours fewer than 100,000 human souls. Built on the ruins of countless civilisations, Shadrapar is a museum, an asylum, a prison on a world that is ever more alien to humanity. Bearing witness to the desperate struggle for existence between life old and new is Stefan Advani: rebel, outlaw, survivor. This is his testament, an account of the journey that took him into the blazing desolation of the western deserts and into the labyrinths and caverns of the underworld. He will meet with monsters and mutants. The question is, which one of them will inherit this Earth?
Sally Jansen was supposed to go to Mars. As NASA leading astronaut, she was assigned to be commanding officer of the Orion 6, a spaceship missioned to collect and study samples on the red planet. However, during the mission, Sally is forced to make a decision that leads to the death of a crew member. While it allows her to save the rest of the crew and her ship, it’s enough to sign the ending to both her astronaut career and NASA Space Program.
Years after, Jansen still has nightmares about the accident. She wants to forget about Mars, NASA and the way her former colleagues looked at her when she landed back on Earth. However, one day she receives a call from her former boss. An unknown object entered the solar system and it is decelerating and heading towards Earth. It’s not responding to any of NASA’s attempts at communication. The only way to see if the object is dangerous is to send out a ship and investigate. However, NASA doesn’t have astronauts anymore and Sally is the only qualified person to lead the mission.
The structure of the book is very meta, The Last Astronaut is a book about a book recounting the events of the Orion 7 mission. Character interviews and commentaries written by the fictional author intersperse the narrative and provide us with further insights on the characters’ thoughts and feelings while adding another layer to the story.
I quite enjoyed The Last Astronaut; it has a blockbuster feel to it that is both a quality and a weakness. Indeed, it’s a compulsive read: I read it very quickly because I couldn’t wait to see what was going to happen to the crew of the Orion 7. The descriptions were detailed enough that I could vividly picture everything and the claustrophobic and suspenseful atmosphere was gripping.
However, the characterization was also “blockbuster-like”: the characters were completely flat and only used as devices to move the plot forward. It’s a shame since the ideas behind each character were good but Wellington didn’t bother to develop any of them beyond that. It led to very obvious plot points that could be detected miles away. I could tell right at the beginning who was going to die, be attacked, make stupid decisions etc. Several characters could have been a lot more interesting if the author had given them a semblance of a personality and gray areas. I don’t want to say much more than that to avoid spoilers but Hawkins could have been such an interesting character and Wellington threw his potential out the window. (Also, the explanation behind some of the character’s action towards the end was simply ridiculous.)
In movies, I can accept bad characterization more easily than in books (a ton of horror movies rely on characters being dumb). I watched Alien (1979) after reading The Last Astronaut because, even if I had never seen the movie, I could tell that the book was very inspired by it. (I’m glad I did, it’s a very good movie). I watched it last week and I have already forgotten most of the characters’ names. However, I don’t really mind that since the story wasn’t narrated from their perspective. In a book, forgetting characters’ names a few days after you finished it and spend 400 pages with them is slightly more concerning.
To be honest, The Last Astronaut is exactly what I thought it would be: a generic first contact story. It has some interesting elements and I had a good time reading it but, it didn’t have anything new to add to the discussion. I think it would make a pretty good movie; I can see why a lot of people would enjoy the story. It’s a fun ride though I don’t think it’s very memorable one. It’s closer to Prometheus than Alien. If you have seen both movies, well… you understand what I’m trying to say.
I would be very surprised if it won the Clarke and, to be perfectly honest, I don’t really get why it was nominated.
Shortlist reading update: I have finished reading the shortlist but I am a bit behind on reviews. I don’t exactly know when the winner is going to be announced but, it’s apparently not going to be at the beginning of September so, I still have a bit of time to review The Old Drift and the Light Brigade!