Book review: Across the Void by S.K. Vaughn
Across the Void - S.K. Vaughn
Across the Void seems a little calculated, the author trying to play all the bases and have something for everyone; it's a space exploration science-fiction adventure, it's a lone person disaster-survival adventure, it's a romance and a conspiracy thriller. Coming from a writer who is a Hollywood screenwriter working under a pseudonym, as you might expect any real SF ideas end up taking a backseat in favour of providing constant thrills and entertainment, but - for a while at least - what an entertainment it is!
Firstly however, there's a gripping science-fiction element here. Former RAF pilot Commander Maryam Knox comes around in a medical unit on-board the NASA research vessel Hawking II, on their way back after an expedition to collect and test samples from Jupiter's Europa moon to find that she's the only surviving crew member. Communications are lost, systems are failing, the ship is in uncharted space and could be going further away from Earth, drifting at high velocity. She can't remember what has happened and the ships AI memory has also been wiped. Something has gone badly wrong.
It's a situation that is about to go from bad to worse, and probably worse again. In fact, as the ship begins to start exploding apart, it's going to get so bad that there is no way May is going to get out of this... it's impossible... the situation is totally unsalvageable... unless... - well, unless you've seen or read The Martian, or seen the film Gravity, both of which come to mind very much when reading Across the Void. What is different about S.K. Vaughn's twist on this idea is that it's not so much an exploration of the ingenuity against extreme adversity - although there's certainly plenty of that - as much as the thriller side of it looking like an attempt at deliberate sabotage. Who would do that? And why is May still alive?
That's one side to Across the Void, and it's assuredly thrilling and constantly surprising, but there's another side to the book that is gradually revealed and that's what happened between May and Stephen, her husband and the Project Manager behind the mission. Their relationship hasn't run smoothly, but May doesn't remember what has happened between them, and she's relying now on Stephen and his chief engineer Raj as her only chance of being rescued.
Despite her lack of memory, you would expect that May would be aware of the graveness of her situation, but you wouldn't get that impression from her behaviour. Despite mounting problems and a few unsuspected personal matters that arise in her background with Stephen, May keeps up an attitude of cheery and cheeky bonhomie, facing every catastrophe and near-death situation with a wisecrack, making observational conversation with the ships AI intelligence, explaining the peculiarities of human expression, vocalising her every though to an unseen audience and never short of a witticism. The banter becomes very tiresome, even worse than the trite smugness of Matt Damon in The Martian.
For the first two thirds of the book at least however, there's a good balance then in Across the Void's calculus between good old-fashioned SF action, murder-mystery, romance and personal character development even if all sides of the equation don't really add up. There's also the possibility that some of the hard science practicalities and political issues around future space exploration programmes are going to be developed, but unfortunately any such hopes are dashed when the necessity to provide further thrills and spills (the movie rights have already been snapped up) that topples the story over into increasing levels of absurdity.
Without giving anything away it's not just it all starts to develop into a huge conspiracy thriller - that much is evident from the suspicions around the sabotage of the Hawking II - or that it descends into bad-guy and evil agency cliches with improbable levels of influence and power, but the domestic quarrels and love triangle romantic complications also start to dominate and develop into quite ludicrous levels of competitiveness. With a high and callous body count finale, if Across the Void remains a page-turner, it's only to skip over the disappointing final third of a book that initially offered a lot more promise.