One Way - S. J. Morden
One Way - S. J. Morden ****
Promising an Agatha Christie in space situation, the tag line "Eight astronauts. One Killer. No Way Home" would be a good enough hook for me, but there's turns out to be more to Simon Morden's One Way than that, and more indeed than it just a murder-mystery version of Andy Weir's The Martian.
For a start, the first crew to land on Mars are not highly trained astronauts, but a small team of no-hope criminals. Frank Kitteridge is one such inmate currently languishing in prison for the shooting and killing of a dealer who was selling drugs to his son. He's going to be in prison for a very long time, unless he agrees to take part in a team that is being gathered and trained to set up a base on Mars that will be ready for the NASA astronauts who will follow. Considering the alternative, it's an opportunity that is surely worth grasping; the only problem is that the rest of the team are all criminals too and not the sort of guys you want to be in close quarters with in a hostile environment with unknown dangers.
Xenosystems, who have been contracted by NASA to set up the base on Mars just so happen to have a prison facility in their portfolio of businesses, and they're not too fussy who they send up as long as they are skilled and capable of handling the necessary tasks. And expendable. Frank and his colleagues are going to be a chain gang really, a group of hardened criminals set out to do hard labour in rough conditions, but who else are you going to send to do a job like this? If things go wrong - and let's face it, you're heading largely into the unknown and untested here - well no one is going to shed any tears, the nation isn't going to have to mourn its heroes and it's less likely to put any future space exploration ventures into jeopardy.
What's in it for the eight prisoners who agree to undertake the six month training and the eight months travelling involved in this hazardous trip? Well, it's the stars or back in the Hole for much of the rest of their lives. And Frank figures that the company are surely going to want to look into the investment they are going to put into him and the others? A few obstacles and setbacks are expected when they get to Mars and start to work on the tasks they have been assigned and specially selected for - a plumber, an engineer, a farmer, a technical expert and a doctor among their number - and even an accidental death, but when there is more than one death, the skills lost put the whole operation at risk. A few suspicious signs however lead Frank to suspect that there's more going on here than they have been told.
And he's not wrong. In between the chapters that follow the progress of the setting up of a base camp on Mars with the associated difficulties that occur and associated deaths, we are given insights into transcripts of secret conversations, meetings, phone calls, memos and diary entries that hint at behind the scenes cutbacks and deals going on at Xenosystems, where human losses are not only to be expected, they may actually be part of the plans.
What Simon Morden picks up on in One Way are the dangers of space exploration as a commercial enterprise. When profit margins are involved, there will always be cuts and close management of expenditure; no-one is going to build in redundancies or leave wide margins to protect against errors or failures when you have to account for every cubic centimetre of precious space and every single gram of expensive and essential equipment that is transported to a distant planet. How much of that is going to be spent on extra safeguards and how much on returns that are much more profitable, and indeed necessarily profitable to worth undertaking it at all?
These are useful insights and considerations from an author who is good at looking at subjects from a different angle, and who having trained as a planetary geologist can also lay claim to being a rocket scientist. Some of the recorded conversations between senior executives - the source and gathering of which is never really explained - might appear a little too "frank" considering the nature of the conspiracy that is being planned, but you suspect that whether spoken out loud in this way or in more circumspect terms, they are definitely considered. What appears to be the initial attraction of One Way - its murder mystery whodunit - does indeed fail to deliver any real surprises or unexpected twists other than wondering who is next and whether there will be anyone left at the end. That turns out to provide more than enough suspense, even if you never really come to know or care enough about the con-astronauts, and alongside the involvement of commercial enterprise in space exploration and tourism, One Way raises plenty of other interesting and worrying issues to consider.
One Way by S. J. Morden is published by Gollancz on 10th April 2018. The Kindle edition is available at the reduced price of £1.99 for a limited period from the link below.
Amazon UK - One Way