by Christopher Paolini
Series: Fractalverse #0.5
Publisher: Tor Books
Publication Date: May 16, 2023
Genres: Science Fiction
I received this book for free from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.My rating:
July 25th, 2234: The crew of the Adamura discovers the Anomaly.
On the seemingly uninhabited planet Talos VII:a circular pit, 50 kilometers wide.
Its curve not of nature, but design.
Now, a small team must land and journey on foot across the surface to learn who built the hole and why.
But they all carry the burdens of lives carved out on disparate colonies in the cruel cold of space.
For some the mission is the dream of the lifetime, for others a risk not worth taking, and for one it is a desperate attempt to find meaning in an uncaring universe.
Each step they take toward the mysterious abyss is more punishing than the last.
And the ghosts of their past follow.
If you’re going into this expecting something like To Sleep in a Sea of Stars, well, you’re going to be disappointed. The Adamura sure as heck ain’t the Wallfish and the main characters are also on completely opposite ends of the spectrum. Fiancé/spouse dies? Kira goes and stabs stuff, Alex… goes for a very long walk. This is a philosophical and introspective story about one man’s (rather depressing) reaction to the discovery of the Anomaly and search for the Meaning of Life.
After his wife Layla died in an accident on their home planet, Alex took a posting on the Adamura as the xenobiologist. It’s been routine and boring, analyzing alien bacteria, good for Alex since he’s barely managing to function in the depths of his depression. When the crew spot an unmistakably artificial formation on a nearby planet, even the prospect of intelligent alien life isn’t initially enough to interest him. But Layla would’ve been so excited about their discovery, so Alex commits to being part of the mission team sent to survey it in person. Because of the electromagnetic qualities, the team has to approach the hole from several days away on foot. As their journey progresses and things begin going wrong, what does Alex expect to find at the end of their trek?
Four of the Adamura‘s crew are chosen to investigate the hole: Alex (our grief-stricken MC), Talia (a religious zealot), Pushkin (who just wants to get paid) and Chen (basically a doormat). To be honest, all of the characters are unlikeable and obnoxious in various ways. They all have quite a bit of emotional baggage they’re carting around along with their rations and core sampling supplies. And naturally their trip to the hole of course quickly runs into issues. Their already difficult journey becomes a grueling trek through an unfriendly and barren landscape that tests their endurance and teamwork. In the afterword, the author wrote that the idea for this book came to him in a nightmare and that made complete sense. For me, the best part of the book was the details of the trek: dealing with equipment malfunctions, the constant thuds every 10.something seconds (that only get more jarring as they get closer to the hole), the interpersonal friction. It’s deeply immersive, enough that I could almost see the sand blowing across the empty plains. There’s a suspense-like, eerie quality to the whole journey, which only gets worse as the characters get more and more isolated.
As anyone who’s hiked for a long amount of time can tell you, eventually your mind starts to wander. Alex’s thoughts return repeatedly to Layla, reminiscing and remonstrating himself for everything that went wrong in their relationship. But that pales in comparison to his struggle to try to find some sort of meaning in his current life. It’s impossible not to see the parallels between his incredibly bleak view of life and the empty landscape he’s trudging through. While I found some of it overwrought (Alex, you need therapy, pal), I did find his sometimes irrational and desperate attempts to reason around why he was still alive while Layla wasn’t engrossing reading. I’ve dealt with grief and chronic depression so it was fascinating to see which of his thoughts struck a chord with me and which were completely alien.
What didn’t work so well for me was when Talia and Pushkin entered into it. Throwing hedonism and a sort of religious asceticism into the whole Meaning of Life debate is interesting, sure, but the ideas didn’t feel as organically introduced as Alex’s. They’re so diametrically opposed – and so far from Alex’s POV – that it felt more like a debate class. Sure, it adds more friction to the team dynamics, but I’m not sure it really furthered Alex’s personal musings and personally it jarred me out of the story.
Overall, I’d probably give this 3.5 stars. It’s not at all what I was expecting and not my usual cup of tea, but parts of it were very enjoyable. Recommended if you’re looking for something philosophical with a good sci-fi bent!