- 13 May 21
There Goes The Sun
Don’t get me wrong, I’m as partial to a Dún Laoghaire-based romance as the next man, and the world can never have enough short story collections that deal with the nitty-gritty of modern life. There is also, of course, a place for every novel that bears witness the birth of our nation, forged in the crucible of the civil war; but I am, at heart, a simple fellow. I crave beer, loud rock n’ roll, and books that have sentences like “a lone astronaut must save the Earth from disaster” printed on the back cover.
If, like me, you enjoyed Andy Weir’s bestselling scientist-struggling-to-survive-in-space epic The Martian – and the Ridley Scott/Matt Damon movie was great fun too – then you'll have been waiting for this, his third (published) novel. There was a slight wobble with the high-jinks-on-the-moon caper, Artemis, in 2017. It was grand, just not as good as the one that went before it, but let's skip over that.
The narrator wakes up in a lab-like room with a computer barking questions at him, two plus two, cube root of eight, that sort of thing. He can’t remember his name. He pulls tubes and wires from every orifice, with the removal of the catheter proving particularly tricky. The memory of an email comes – conveniently - back to him, something about a very feint line in the solar system that’s emitting infrared light near Venus. There are two dead people in the room, and their near-mummified remains indicate that they didn’t die yesterday or the day before, but that’s not the only thing that’s bothering him. Things seems to be falling with just a tad more haste than might be expected, so he uses some mathematical wrangling to discover that the gravity he’s experiencing is stronger than it should be, telling him he’s either in a huge centrifuge or he’s not on the Earth!
He regains more memories of this ‘Petrova Line’ that is causing the sun to dim, which is very bad news indeed for anything living on a big blue planet in its vicinity. He remembers how NASA sent an unmanned ship to Venus in order to ascertain what exactly was going on. The data comes back, there are microscopic black dots, but they appear to be moving. They’re alive!
Our man recalls that he’s part of a crew – that one was a bit obvious – and, before that, he was a science teacher. Eva Stratt, the head of the Petrova Task Force, turns up at his school, asking if he is the same Ryland Grace who wrote the scientific paper with the catchy title, An Analysis of Water-Based Assumptions and Recalibration of Expectations for Evolutionary Models. He is, and so begins his adventure as he’s whipped off by FBI men to examine the ‘dots’ that the Arclight probe brought back. He gives them a name – astrophage – and does a few tests. It turns out that they consume energy – hence the dimming of the sun, store it in some way and then use it for propulsion.
Back on the ship he figures out that he’s in a different solar system and that the ship is using astrophage for fuel, harnessing the massive amounts of propulsive energy these little creatures expel, but there still can’t be enough to get him home. He also discovers four small probes, John, Paul, George, and Ringo, each with five terabytes of onboard memory, designed to send data back to Earth. All this engenders the grim realisation that this is a suicide mission. He’s going to die out here!
Now, if all this doesn’t make you want to drop everything and rush out to get this hugely enjoyable if slightly daft book, then I don’t really know what will. The characters of Grace and Stratt are particularly well put together. He is far from the gung-ho hero that one might have expected, but rather a flawed human being, trying to do his best. She has been granted the kind of power that tyrants dream of by a unanimous UN vote. Given carte blanche to get the job done, she is ruthless, because getting the goddamn job done is all the matters! She knows, however, that even if she succeeds, she’ll most likely have to face consequences for her means-justify-ends methods.
Again, if you were a fan of The Martian, you’ll love this problem solving hero and his science-based adventures. Well, I say science-based, but in the previous book, Mark Watney managed to start a potato farm on Mars, tell that to those we lost during the great hunger!
Because of the more far out – literally - nature of this book, things do go off the reservation into the purely speculative - you know, as opposed to harvesting roosters on the red planet - but Weir successfully keeps all the plates in the ‘air’ and I found myself staying up past my bedtime to find out how Grace solves each successive conundrum. It should surprise precisely no one to hear that the rights to this space opera have already been snapped up by MGM with Ryan Gosling currently in the running for a starring role. They have their work cut out for them if they’re to make that movie even half as entertaining as the source material, which is great sport altogether.