Space Races and Other Pursuits: Sylvain Neuvel’s Until the Last of Me

There are different ways to make a narrative gripping. One way is to give a sense of the bigger picture—to show how a particular character’s choices and actions have an impact on a much larger scale. Another is to zero in on something much more specific and showcase a highly limited perspective—something where the why of it all matters less than the breakneck pace it requires to get there.

The first of these could be best embodied by something like the Foundation series, where a seismic shift in a society is at stake. For the latter, something like James Dickey’s To the White Sea—a story of a man trying to survive in the midst of the final days of World War II—comes to mind. But it’s more rare to find books that are able to split the difference between the two; N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy fits the bill, but it’s one of a handful of works that can do so.

Two books in, Sylvain Neuvel’s Take Them to the Stars is managing to accomplish this feat, bridging ambitious high concept and adrenalized chase narrative. The first book in the series, A History of What Comes Next, told the story of a mother and daughter, Sarah and Mia, who are known as the Kibsu. Precisely what the Kibsu are is one of the series’s ongoing mysteries, but there seems to be something extraterrestrial in their distant lineage—an aspect of which makes each generation virtually identical to the last.

The Kibsu have been working behind the scenes to push humanity into space, and much of A History of What Comes Next followed Sarah and Mia working behind the scenes to get space programs up and running in both the United States and the Soviet Union. They’re also doing so while eluding the Tracker, their opposite number, a series of men who seek them out with murder on their mind—and who seem to know things about their shared history.

When Until the Last of Me opens, it’s 1968 and Mia has a daughter of her own, Lola. Some of the novel’s action involves Mia seeking to push the planet’s nascent space programs further into the realm of exploration; an ongoing subplot for much of the novel involves the Grand Tour—parts of which later became the Voyager program—a planned 1970s NASA mission that made use of the planets lining up in a very particular way that only happens every 175 years.

Aspects of Until the Last of Me echo its predecessor, with Lola rebelling somewhat against her mother and Mia pondering her own change in roles and the growing responsibility that comes along with it. But the world that the two move through—which includes stops on a host of continents—is a tumultuous one in ways that are dramatically different from the World War II and post-war settings of A History of What Comes Next. That chaos manifests itself in a number of ways, including a couple of bold shifts within the narrative.

Interspersed with Mia and Lola’s story are interludes focusing mainly—though not exclusively—on past generations of the Kibsu, as well as scenes that offer a greater sense of what the Tracker is up to—mainly through the character of Samael, the violent product of a horrifyingly dysfunctional family—and what it would be like to witness toxic masculinity distilled down to a very small society of fathers and sons. Turns out humanizing the series’s antagonists doesn’t make them any less scary—though it does raise more questions about just where the series is headed and what both sides’ endgames are.

So far, Neuvel has found a good balance between the ongoing mysteries of this series and providing answers to them. But there’s an element to this novel that can frustrate somewhat—namely, the deeply pared-down style used for many chapters, which sometimes zeroes in on dialogue to the exclusion of anything else.

That can be frustrating when, as a reader, one might want a bigger sense of just how everything is coming together—but it’s also faithful to the pared-down experience of the Kibsu, working with minimal resources to accomplish something extraordinary. And given the note on which this novel ends, the stakes of this series have risen exponentially.

Until the Last of Me is available from Tordotcom Publishing.

reel-thumbnailTobias Carroll is the managing editor of Vol.1 Brooklyn. He is the author of the short story collection Transitory (Civil Coping Mechanisms) and the novel Reel (Rare Bird Books).

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