The Last Astronaut by David Wellington

I’m on a real science-fiction kick at the moment, the more end-of-the-worldy the better (let’s call it, getting in the right mindset).

The Last Astronaut just about qualifies, I reckon.

Seventy odd years from now, an object appears in the solar system that may, or may not be, an alien space craft. As one would expect, the craft is on a collision course with Earth, so what’s left of NASA puts together a team to make contact with the whatever-it-is. The team, made up of quite a stereotypical bunch of barely-trained spacers, is led by Sally Jansen, the woman who is widely seen as responsible for the failure of the first Mars Mission thirty years before, in which a crew member met a rather grisly end. Since NASA was pretty much dismantled after the disaster, Sally is not just their best shot; she’s their only shot.

Quite a topical one this: I have a vague recollection of something travelling into telescope range a few years ago, that was a very similar shape to the one the author describes in the book; so now I know why they sometimes call this Speculative Fiction. This is a couple of hundred pages speculating what the object might be, and it’s a pretty scary guess.

The book itself is well-written, with a style that is short on frills, but still gets the point across without going around the houses. The characters aren’t as three-dimensional as I would have liked, but I don’t think that mattered too much since no one showed up whom I haven’t met in many many novels before. Some may say that makes them a bit clichéd, but others may take a different view: it means your brain will fill in a lot of the character gaps from memory, so it’s no real surprise that the characters think and act in the way you’d expect them to.

The story motors along quite quickly, until they reach the floating … thing … and then it kind of slows down as the crew makes a long (really long) journey from one end of the artifact to the other. The journey is littered with hazards and sudden death situations, but really, I felt it went on for a little too long without very much being revealed. The pages just before the climax went by in a bit of a blur. I think the problem was that we were spending too long in each of the characters’ heads, even though we already had a pretty good idea of who they were. Rather than making things more exciting, it sort of slowed things down to a bit of a crawl.

Still, I think the ending (when we got there) just about worked. The science behind the fiction was just about workable, and the tie-in to a real news event was very clever.

As long as you’re not expecting anything too ground-breaking, this is a very good book.

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