Meg Howrey’s The Wanderers demonstrates the beauty of precision and control, not just in our professional relationships, but also in prose. Helen, Sergei, and Yoshi are three astronauts selected to be the first to travel to Mars and back by a commercial private venture called Prime. But first, they have to do the trip on the ground first, in a simulation of every single thing. Months in isolation, the three of them, in the Utah desert, under constant observation.
Helen’s daughter Meeps (Mireille) is trying to launch her career as an actor and calling one of the obbers (observers) who monitors her mother. Dmitri is Sergei’s son, sixteen and just beginning to come to terms with being gay. Yoshi’s wife Madoka is a robotics expert and wondering if their marriage works because he is gone so much.
The story takes Helen, Sergei, and Yoshi to Mars and back, at least in simulation–or is it a simulation? Really, did they need to simulate the trip to Texas, the elevator up to the rocket? The simulation is so complete it seems possible it is not a simulation. But would anyone be so cruel as to send people to Mars and not tell them they are really there? An interesting question, but not even close to the most interesting thing about the book.
The Wanderers starts a little slow but is worth your patience. Howrey’s prose is restrained and disciplined, a reflection of the discipline and restraint of the astronauts. There is a distance in the prose, a precision that creates a separation between reader and the people in the story–at first. But then, we see how that discipline is achieved, the process of self-control and deliberation and careful, considered communication. There is real honesty side-by-side with duplicity, knowing what they should say, how they should feel, and striving to align their reality with their optimal reality.
This is not an “adventure” story even though it involved space travel or simulated space travel. This is very much an interior story, a story of human friendships and families. It’s about feelings, not adventure. It is in many ways a quiet novel. Its wealth is emotional and that is where it is most powerful.