Review: We Have Always Been Here – Lena Nguyen
by Lena Nguyen
Publisher: Daw Books
Publication Date: July 6, 2021
Genres: Science Fiction
I received an advance review copy of this book from NetGalley. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.My rating:
This psychological sci-fi thriller from a debut author follows one doctor who must discover the source of her crew's madness... or risk succumbing to it herself.
Misanthropic psychologist Dr. Grace Park is placed on the Deucalion, a survey ship headed to an icy planet in an unexplored galaxy. Her purpose is to observe the thirteen human crew members aboard the ship—all specialists in their own fields—as they assess the colonization potential of the planet, Eos. But frictions develop as Park befriends the androids of the ship, preferring their company over the baffling complexity of humans, while the rest of the crew treats them with suspicion and even outright hostility.
Shortly after landing, the crew finds themselves trapped on the ship by a radiation storm, with no means of communication or escape until it passes—and that's when things begin to fall apart. Park's patients are falling prey to waking nightmares of helpless, tongueless insanity. The androids are behaving strangely. There are no windows aboard the ship. Paranoia is closing in, and soon Park is forced to confront the fact that nothing—neither her crew, nor their mission, nor the mysterious Eos itself—is as it seems.
Content notes: View Spoiler »climate disaster due to global warming, scifi violence (including murder and gun-like objects), self-harm (due to nightmare, involuntary imprisonment, slavery/indentured servitude « Hide Spoiler
I am always here for space horror, especially ones that question the definition of human consciousness. And this book is creepily atmospheric, starring a fascinating main character who has her work cut out for her trying to be the therapist for the thirteen other human crew members on a mission to evaluate a planet for possible human colonization. It wasn’t supposed to be that way – Park’s mentor was supposed to be the primary therapist while Park was just supposed to be in the background – but things have been off-balance ever since they landed on Eos. Park, forbidden from actually stepping foot on the planet, is left with the sinking feeling that she’s been lied to about the purpose of the mission. Why are there so many military-trained members on an exploration crew? Why are there so many androids? With crew members falling mysteriously ill and the ship androids slowly malfunctioning, Park is left to unravel the mystery – while there’s still time to leave Eos.
“You’re the monitor,” Keller would often say. “The one who’s behind the scenes, watching. Figuring out what’s going on below the surface. I’m just here as the bait, coaxing everything out for you to examine.”
Park is a fascinating character. At times I wondered if she was neuroatypical, as some of her struggles reflect those of people I know on the spectrum. Despite admitting to struggling to understand many aspects of human socialization, Park is a psychologist specialized in analyzing the micro-expressions of people. She’s not supposed to be the one actually doing the counseling, but the one looking beneath the surface for the things the person isn’t saying. But her position is also basically a spy for ISF, the company who runs the known universe with an iron first. Most of the crew are conscripted, which means either they or their families signed their lives away to ISF in return for getting off Earth, which is now almost entirely covered in plantlife run rampant except for a few biodomes. Disappointing ISF means that a crew member and their entire family could be sent back to live in the wilds of Earth. Unlike most of the (conscripted) crew, Park grew up in an Earth biodome, orphaned at a young age and then raised by an uncle – or rather, raised by the androids her uncle bought to take care of her. She gets along much better with androids than people, leading her to be the scapegoat and victim of crew pranks.
“She just hates the robots because most people hate them.”
“Why do people hate them, though?” Park asked, feeling stubborn. “What have they ever done to anybody?”
“They’re different,” he said. “That’s enough.”
“Not so different, though,” she insisted. “They’re just like us, in many ways.”
Now Sagara laughed softly. “Just another reason to be afraid,” he remarked.”
The story picks up with Park awaking in medbay after being pranked with an emetic, to the shocking news that the ship’s engineer has also fallen ill and has been put in cryo stasis. From there, it follows Park as the other crew members get to work exploring the new world – and as things start to fall apart. It’s also interspersed with transcripts from the miners who originally found the planet, as well as flashbacks to Park’s earlier life, especially her interactions with the android, Glenn, who basically raised her. It’s a strange situation to have a character who’s constantly baffled by human interactions be the one who’s supposed to understand the possible motivations of the crew. Poirot, Park is not! She’s isolated from the crew, an outsider even after months spent among them, and her closest relationship is with Jimex, a custodial android who’s attached himself to her. While a lot of time is spent getting to know the other human crew members – military Boone, antagonistic Natalya, and, most confusing to Park, the seemingly romantic Fulbreech – an almost equal amount of time is also spent with the android component, especially Jimex and Ellenex, a nursing android. While the rest of the crew view the androids with at best detachment and at worst severe dislike, Park feels safest with them.
“It was like following the root system of a giant tree, shuffling blindly along in the half-dark. Or climbing through the arteries of a mechanical heart. What would be found, deep down in the core of things? You could never be quite sure.”
The book is set almost entirely on the Deucalion. The ship itself is creepy, a confusing maze of passageways built according to scientific principles that Park doesn’t know nor care about. That lends itself to several creepy excursions down to the lower levels, searching for lost crew members or clues to what’s happening. Since Park is so isolated, she has very little information to go on initially, and the slow reveal of what’s happening on the ship – complete with some red herrings – built the tension well. Park knows something is wrong, even if no one else will admit it, and by the time everyone else realizes that, she’s already knee-deep in the mystery. It did take a while for the story to hook me, but once it did, the book was impossible to put down.
Overall, this is a fantastic debut novel, and I can’t wait to see what the author writes next. Recommended if you’re looking for something creepy with a fascinating narrator.