In Meg Howrey’s new novel The Wanderers, astronauts Helen Kane, Sergei Kuznetsov, and Yoshihiro Tanaka are selected by the private aerospace company Prime Space to pilot a trip to Mars. First they must go through Eidolon, a 17-month-long simulation in a warehouse in the middle of nowhere. During the sim, “obbers,” or observers, watch their every move as the astronauts learn not only how to work with each other but survive the stressors of intense isolation, forced socialization, and living an incomprehensible distance from home.
Helen, Sergei, and Yoshi have defined their lives and relationships by their profession and now suddenly find themselves having to interact with each other as regular people, a feat not as straightforward as they assume. We also spend time with relatives of the astronauts, including Helen’s daughter Mireille, Sergei’s son Dmitri, Yoshi’s wife Madoka, and one of the obbers. Mireille is an aspiring actor who both relishes and resents being the ignorable daughter of a celebrity, Dmitri a teenage boy discovering his sexual identity is more complicated than he expected, and Madoka a multilayered and exacting woman who loves her marriage mostly because of how little time she spends being a wife.
Over the last seven years, I’ve written dozens of book reviews for Tor.com. Most of the time I find a lot of things I love about each novel and plenty things that rub me the wrong way. Every now and again I encounter a book I can’t believe managed to get published despite glaring, debilitating errors. But the situation I’m in right now with The Wanderers is a rare one. It’s a dazzling, intricate novel telling earnest stories … and I disliked every single second of the reading experience. Howrey’s novel wasn’t what I thought it would be. No, it was bigger than that: it wasn’t what it claimed to be. The failure doesn’t have anything to do with the style, tone, story, or characters. I mean obviously, I didn’t personally care for the way in which those elements turned out, but they weren’t poorly or offensively crafted.
Even with my colossal disinterest I will gladly acknowledge that The Wanderers truly is a beautifully written novel. Each character shines as unique and realistic creations with complex, tangled lives. Explorers really are a special brand of human, and those traits, quirks, and flaws are dragged to the fore here. There isn’t much of a plot because the action is all character study. This renders the pacing slow; for some the gradual turn will be just right while for others (like me) interminably glacial. As a study of a particular branch of humanity, The Wanderers is striking, a dominating and domineering critique of the people who leave and the ones left behind.
No, the real problem is that it was marketed as Station Eleven meets The Martian. Other than its vaguely science-fictional trappings and being contemplative with scattered moments of humor, it’s really nothing at all like either novel. Being compared to The Martian in particular was what hooked me, having enjoyed both the book and movie. It’s not that The Wanderers isn’t a good book, but it very much isn’t Station Eleven or The Martian. Like, at all.
Both The Martian and The Wanderers have a connection to Mars (Howrey’s characters are prepping for a Martian trip while Andy Weir’s novel largely takes place on Mars) and deal with people going through emotionally difficult periods requiring constant rumination, but that’s where the similarities end. I haven’t read Station Eleven, but all the summaries and reviews make it sound substantially different from anything Howrey was attempting.
Honestly, it’s not even all that science fiction-y. It’s standard literary fiction that happens to be partially set on a spaceship simulator. Whether that’s a pro or a con depends on your love of science fiction. Science fiction, especially hard sci-fi, isn’t my favorite genre, but I really enjoy the lighter side like John Scalzi’s Redshirts, Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers Guide series, and, of course, Andy Weir’s The Martian. Hence my initial interest and subsequent frustration with The Wanderers.
Marketing The Wanderers as something it isn’t does a major disservice to author and reader alike. The publisher has missed Howrey’s target audience and instead ended up with a bunch of dissatisfied readers. I need more from my fiction than introspection. I prefer novels with an active plot and compelling characters over quiet pieces that live in characters’ heads. I’d rather experience the story’s world and cast by what they do and how they interact rather than internal reflections. All this means I had a challenging time with even finishing The Wanderers. The combination of it not being a style I personally enjoyed and the disappointed expectations meant the only way I could finish it was by turning it into homework. Forcing yourself to finish is the worst way to read a book.
That’s not to say my preference is better or worse than those who prefer Howrey’s style. Again, The Wanderers really is an astonishing book if you like contemporary literary stories where the main action is people reflecting on their lives. I generally don’t. Conflicts like this make writing a thorough review challenging because it’s so hard to find the “objective” positives through all the “subjective” negatives. Had the marketing not been so misleading I never would’ve raised my hand to review The Wanderers and Howrey’s novel would be getting the coverage it deserves.
So I don’t know what to tell you with this one. This is one of those times where you really should judge the book by its cover, specifically the description on the back and the books it’s being compared to. If you like what The Wanderers actually is, then by all means read and enjoy. If you like what the marketing says it is, then you may want to steer clear.
The Wanderers is available from G. P. Putnam’s Sons.
Alex Brown is a teen librarian, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter and Instagram, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.