Release date: 28 May 2019
Genre: Science Fiction
I had to think about this one for a while to be sure of what I wanted to say about it. Even to be sure what I think about it. It hit me with quite a punch, so it was effective in provoking a reaction, but did I like it? And more importantly, do I recommend it?
The short answer is yes, although this novella wasn’t at all what I was expecting from Tchaikovsky this time around. Here’s the long answer.
This is the story, told in the first person, of astronaut Gary Rendell, a member of an international expedition to explore a giant, possibly alien artefact that has been discovered out beyond Pluto. And then something happens. Gary is left trapped and alone inside the artefact, walking through endless tunnels, trying to survive and maybe, just possibly, find his way back home.
One of Tchaikovsky’s strengths is his ability to get inside the head of a character and show you things from their point of view. He’s done this incredibly successfully with protagonists as diverse as sentient spiders (Children of Time) and a genetically engineered bioform that thinks of itself as a Good Dog (Dogs of War). In each case, the “voice” was distinctive and different. He’s done it again with human astronaut Gary. From the first line of the story, I felt I knew this character:
Today I found something I could eat and something I could burn to keep back the darkness. That makes today a good day.
The voice is reminiscent of Andy Weir’s The Martian, colloquial and wisecracking but with a darker edge.
The narrative swings between the present (walking through the tunnels) and the past (the expedition and what happened when they arrived) but unlike many dual narratives, It is perfectly balanced between the two, present action alternating with exposition in a way that is never boring but gradually ratchets up the tension.
It’s a fast read and a compelling one, with little stops along the way for a bit of reflection and philosophy, a bit of deeper meaning:
I feel like, in coming out here, we’re bleeding our culture, the humanness of us, out into the void.
But they don’t last long, and within a few lines, the light, humorous tone is back:
I’d eat humble pie with every conspiracy theorist in the world if they’d only lend me one of their tinfoil hats right now.
Gary meets all kinds of creatures in the tunnels and there is plenty of danger, gore and even horror, but it’s all kind of playful, darkly funny, not too serious. And then, suddenly, the whole tone changes and real horror descends. I won’t say any more, but I actually had to stop reading for a moment because it was such a shock. Tchaikovsky knows how to pack a wallop, as Gary himself might say.
Walking to Aldebaran is beautifully judged in length, tone and pacing, with a superb ending. A worthy addition to Tchaikovsky’s body of science fiction. I can’t wait to see what he’s going to do next.
A digital A.R.C. of this novel was supplied to me by Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.