Review: The Last Astronaut
First contact is the kind of experience that’s ripe for miscommunications and misinterpretations that can literally reshape the world.
From more traditional hard sci-fi stuff, like Clarke to Reynolds, to the more literary offerings of LeGuin or Russell (she wrote THE SPARROW), first contact is a recurring theme in speculative fiction.
While there’s a million different ways to parse and taxonomize this (sub) genre, you can trace a big divide between texts that explore first contact with aliens who share fundamental premises of existence with humans (in psychology, if not in size or number of eyes) and texts in which the aliens are really, really… alien (think “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang, which is portrayed in the movie Arrival).
David Wellington’s THE LAST ASTRONAUT (Amazon) belongs to the latter category. Let’s just say that there are no little green moon men here.
Sunny Stevens knows something that no one else does. There’s an object heading for earth, and it’s slowing down. Objects in space do not, as a rule, slow down. Unless they’re braking. Bursting with the world-changing knowledge of an imminent alien arrival, Stevens leaves the corporate world of KSpace and uses his discovery to bargain his way onto the first NASA mission to the approaching object.
While Stevens is completely untested as an astronaut, mission commander Sally Jansen is not. She was supposed to be the first woman on Mars, but when a terrible accident derailed the mission and her life over twenty years ago, she gave up any hope of ever returning to space. Now she’s in command again and searching for a shot at redemption. Stevens and Jansen are joined by the astrobiologist Parminder Rao, who’s spent her whole life hoping for first contact, and Major Windsor Hawkins, who’s just following orders.
Jansen’s crew heads out to the object, but KSpace is sending their own team, and now there’s a race to figure out why the aliens are here as well as what exactly they are. When the KSpace team disappears inside the alien object, Jansen launches a search and rescue mission with dire consequences.
I hesitate to say more, because the plot is so closely tied to what the crew finds on and in the object. I’ll just say that THE LAST ASTRONAUT floats somewhere between an idea story with hints of a thriller and a little horror mixed in.
The plot moves along at a nice clip. There’s a frame story that allows Wellington a good degree of flexibility to give readers technical information and perspectives. I sort of forgot what the big idea of the frame story was, but I liked the effect while I was reading.
The weakest part of the novel is probably the characters. Don’t get me wrong, they’re not terrible! It’s just that they all feel about ¾ finished. I would have liked to see one more facet of each them–something they loved back on earth, that makes their sacrifices worth it. For example, while Jansen is driven to redeem herself and Rao is driven to discover more about the alien(s) by her natural curiosity and Steven’s death, their motivations aren’t much deeper than that. Major Hawkins might as well be a cardboard cutout.
It’s not a fatal flaw, but it’s part of the reason I couldn’t bump up the rating.
Astute readers won’t be surprised by either the plot or the ending of THE LAST ASTRONAUT but Wellington hits his marks and it’s an enjoyable first-contact story.
- Recommended Age: 12+
- Language: A few mild words here or there
- Violence: Almost none--one scene of gun violence
- Sex: None