17 April 2018

Review - One Way by Simon Morden

One Way
Simon Morden
Orion, 10 April 2018
PB, 336pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of One Way via NetGalley.

In the mid 2040s, Frank Kittridge is serving life (or many lives) without possibility of parole for murder. He's lost touch with his son, his wife has divorced him, and there's no future apart from years inside followed by death.

So when he's approached by Xo, the company behind the upcoming Mars mission, and offered the chance of a one-way ticket if he'll join a team of cons doing the spadework for the new base, he knows he's got little to lose. And perhaps, he may find redemption and even some honour one day in the eyes of his son. So Frank says "yes".

From then on, the story is of hard physical training and team building as the group - recruited for their various skills, all put away for life - practise, practise and practise for their different tasks. It's made clear by Brack, the group's brutal overseer, that any slip, any failure, any disobedience - even any illness - will mean being thrown off the programme and consigned to the Hole - a lifetime of solitary in a super-secure prison.

Frank may be out, but he's never going to be free.

Morden effectively portrays the forming dynamics between the members of the little group, their attempts to make the offer work for them and to ensure they succeed and don't get put in the Hole. They are, as one might expect in a story like this, a fairly mixed bunch and trust is hard to build. All the same, Frank gets some satisfaction from accomplishing his assigned task - building the habs that will form the base on Mars, and driving the Mars buggies to be used on the surface.

Throughout this - and indeed throughout the book - we also see internal memos, emails and transcripts of meetings from the Xo Corporation, giving information about the aims and means of the project but increasingly making it clear that corners are being intentionally cut and that there are other agendas than simply completing the base on time and to budget. It's a fascinating patchwork and I'd advise the reader to pay close attention to the dates here as this material bobs about a bit over the ten years or so in which the mission is planned and developed.

The story proper really picks up pace once Mars is reached. The team awake from suspended animation to find that the materials, equipment and food they're supposed to use have been scattered far from the landing site. They will need to pull together to survive, but accidents begin to happen...

I really enjoyed this story. Really, really enjoyed it. It's the kind of book that keeps you reading long into the night and has you annoying the family at meals when you pull out your e-reader. (Reader, I know whereof I speak...) Morden tells a compulsive story, which is at first driven along by the technical challenge of survival in a harsh environment but then, as the base seems to be coming together, turns into a deadly game or murder in a closed setting. There is plenty of tension in how that latter element is resolved (although I did work out fairly early on who must be behind it all, if not, exactly, how and why it was done and I also became rather frustrated that Frank was a little slow to do the same).

It's one of those books that almost seems to change character as you move through it. Given the first parts seems to be an exploration of how teamwork, and trust, might ensure survival, I began to wonder if there was almost a riposte here to what otherwise might seem a very similar book, Andy Weir's The Martian. (You knew I was going to have to mention that...) Weir's book read to me as very old-school, technocratic and individualistic SF, with everything coming down to its protagonist's skills and determination. Like One Way, I read it at a gallop. Unlike One Way (I was surprised to discover when I went back to check) I never reviewed The Martian (one of the few books I've read and not reviewed in the last 5 years or so) which suggests perhaps that for all its readability it made little mark. And it was certainly criticised on grounds of diversity.

Morden does perhaps invite such comparisons by exploring the same survival-on-Mars space,
and in centring the story very firmly on Frank as viewpoint and protagonist, especially in the final part of the book with everyone else a potential suspect, the book explicitly doesn't totally reject The Martian's individualism. What it does do, I think, is enrich it. Frank is a much more rounded and complex character than Mark Watney, with a set of motivations and a backstory which are much more developed. And for much of the book, he is able to demonstrate his relationships with, and his care for, the rest of the team (with all their flaws). In that, the story reminded me of Morden's fantasy novels Down Station and The White City which take a group of Londoners and thrust them into a parallel reality as London burns. There, too, one sees the team dynamics, the trust and the betrayals. It is those same dynamics which Morden uses to build up to his conclusion - a conclusion that is in the end very human.

So while the setup to this story and some of the practicalities may be similar, which seems vary courageous, Minister, on the whole I think it would be unfair to Morden to see this book through that lens, although  I suspect he'll be asked about it A LOT.

In short this book is a fine read, providing a lot to think about.

For more about One Way, see the publisher's website here.

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