Heartfelt Science Fiction: Light Years From Home by Mike Chen

Mike Chen’s refusal to stay in any one genre box has become one of his greatest strengths as a writer; his narratives are nimble and never overly reliant on gimmicks, but he still leans in to the familiar and enjoyable conventions of a given genre. His talent for genre-hopping would be reason enough to read Chen’s work, but that’s not what makes him unique. Whether writing about time travel, the apocalypse, superheroes, or alien invasions, Mike Chen’s work examines, reveals, and ultimately heals a beating human heart. And with Light Years From Home, he’s done it once again.

A lot has happened to Evie and Kass Shao in the last fifteen years after their brother Jakob disappeared. Their Dad, obsessed with the theory that he was abducted by aliens, throws himself into the conspiracy, desperate to prove it and ultimately losing himself. As Evie falls into the conspiracy web her Dad created, Kass takes up the burden of caring for their mother, their home, and being there to catch the crumbling pieces of her family as Evie’s roots sink deeper into the internet, looking for Jakob in every bit of data she can hack. And on the day Jakob returns, older, wiser, scarred, and speaking of an intergalactic war that he’s an essential part of, it’ll be up to the Shao siblings to see if they can reconnect again and save one another before it all goes up flames.

Light spoilers to follow.

I’ll be honest, the back copy had me believing with this book that part of the main conflict would be the “Was Jakob actually abducted or not? Is it all in his head or is it real?” And while that would’ve been interesting, what’s more interesting is that Chen went, “Nah,” and we meet Jakob in Chapter 1 literally on a spaceship, in the middle of an intergalactic war, trying to navigate the trauma of fighting a terrible force known as the Awakened and keeping his friends in the Seven Bells fleet alive long enough to stop them. Bringing us into this moment, en media res, as Jakob Shao, alive and well and absolutely on a damn spaceship, Chen flips expectations the moment the book opens. Not only that, but our first impression of Jakob sets the tone for every beat to come after, as who he was is at constant odds with who he’s become, and Chen mines beats both dramatic and subtle out of this as soon after, Jakob returns to Earth and back into the life of his remaining family…who aren’t doing so great.

The story starts off in the stars but is quickly grounded back on Earth soon after, as we meet the other members of the Shao family, each of whom have been hollowed by grief in their own ways, filling that loss any way they can. Evie has thrown herself into her research on alien civilizations, extraterrestrial sightings, taking all jobs to pay the bills, spending all her free time on research and has moved across the country, rarely talking to her family. Kass, meanwhile, has stayed at home, sinking roots deep, refusing to leave especially as their mother has continued to succumb to dementia. Frustrated by her circumstances and angry at being the sole child left to care for her mother, Kass has barely been coping. And when Jakob walks back into their lives, the powder keg is set to blow.

Chen is a fantastic writer for many reasons—strong sense of plot, imaginative science fiction concepts and worldbuilding, well-realized, three-dimensional characters, and beautifully crafted prose—but in this book and in his others, it’s the tightrope balance between the fantastical and the fragile family dynamics at the heart of this story. There’s a delicate rise and fall he maintains, moving us into science fiction just long enough to sweep us back over to the complex interactions these long-lost siblings are having, and then back into a sci-fi plot only to have a moment of personal friction introduce a new complication and on and on. It’s engaging, masterful, and speaks to Chen’s talent that each section is not only engrossing as the others, but that they all work and build together into something unique in genre. Jakob’s story of war and growing into a mature individual fits meticulously into the angst and miscommunication the siblings need to manage and overcome, as problems keep mounting and mounting. Often, stories of plot and stories of the heart can be in conflict, but Chen shows how with the right mixture of care and craft, they can intertwine into something unique and beautiful.

Mike Chen’s brand of heartfelt, human stories that branch through and live alongside epic science fiction settings continues in Light Years From Home and is another homerun for him. It’s got everything a new reader to either him or the genre could want, and enough fresh perspective and ideas, with precision worldbuilding and characterization, to make a seasoned reader happy, too. If you haven’t read his work yet, there’s no better time than now, and this book is the one you’re going to want to start with.

Light Years From Home is published by MIRA Books.
Read an excerpt here.
Disclaimer: Martin Cahill is named in the book’s acknowledgements by Mike Chen, for helping him brainstorm titles.

Martin Cahill is a writer living in Queens who works as the Marketing and Publicity Manager for Erewhon Books. He has fiction work forthcoming in 2021 at Serial Box, as well as Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Fireside Fiction. Martin has also written book reviews and essays for Book Riot, Strange Horizons, and the Barnes and Noble SF&F Blog. Follow him online at @mcflycahill90 and his new Substack newsletter, Weathervane, for thoughts on books, gaming, and other wonderfully nerdy whatnots.


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