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Vessel by Lisa A. Nichols

Published by Atria/Emily Bestler Books on May 21, 2019

Vessel is a pedestrian family drama about a woman who survives an ordeal that ends her marriage and places her at risk — the kind of story that is often described as being worthy of a Lifetime movie — dressed up in the trappings of science fiction. The family drama is insipid and the science fiction elements, seemingly cobbled together from bad sf movies, are laughable.

Catherine Wells left Earth on the Sagittarius with five other crew members. All were presumed dead when their life support signals stopped transmitting. Six years later, the Sagittarius pops through a wormhole, carrying only Catherine. She doesn’t remember what happened to the other crew members or the year-and-a-half that she spent on an alien planet. She does remember some things that happened before the ship landed but she doesn’t want to share those with NASA.

The story makes multiple grabs at the reader's heartstrings. On the Sagittarius, Catherine misses her daughter Aimee soooooo much. During her long absence, Catherine’s husband David has fallen in love with Catherine’s friend Maggie. Catherine’s mother has Alzheimer’s. Shallow mother-daughter bonding/fretting/fighting scenes pervade the novel. Could the story be any more obviously manipulative? Readers who enjoy a domestic weepfest might be Vessel’s target audience. I’m not sure how many of those readers gravitate to science fiction, but not to worry, this isn’t a serious attempt at science fiction.

As domestic dramas go, Catherine is not a particularly sympathetic character. She had her own affair while she was away from the planet and, unlike David (who thought she was dead), she had no excuse. Yet David is a supportive husband despite his resentment that Catherine completed mission training while David washed out. In flashbacks, the guy with whom Catherine has a one-night stand confesses that he has loved her since they met and goes into a lasting funk when she tells him she won’t screw him again. No soap opera scenario is left unexplored in Vessel.

The story shows signs of becoming interesting when, back on Earth, Catherine starts blacking out for periods of time. Instead of focusing on plot development, however, the focus is on Catherine’s anxiety each time she has a blackout. Character development is important, but page after page of hand wringing adds little to the story. Too much of the character development focuses on Catherine’s difficulty accepting that David moved on after she was assumed to be dead (the guy is frankly a saint for ending that relationship and taking Catherine back, given what a whiner she turns out to be). Maybe other readers will identify with Catherine. I just wanted to finish the book so I could get away from her.

But back to the plot. The concept (which I won’t reveal for the sake of avoiding spoilers) is so stale that serious sf writers stay away from it unless they can bring a fresh twist. There is nothing fresh about the plot in Vessel. Nearly all of the sf elements struck me as unlikely. Catherine tries to steer their spaceship into the side of a wormhole to see what will happen. Seriously? Before NASA sent a crewed mission to a previously unexplored planet, it wisely sent “probes” but the “probes” failed to detect the presence of water or plant life, both of which can be seen from orbit. Why? Only one of the six crew members on the Sagittarius is a scientist. So there’s a pilot, a scientist, a mission commander, and three astronauts who have no science training? Really? Might as well suit up the Village People.

The first mission through the wormhole involved one astronaut, not even trained as a pilot, in an automated ship. Never in history has NASA done anything that stupid, nor would it. And even though the astronaut returned from the first mission with serious memory impairments and delusional thinking, NASA sent a second mission, from which only Catherine returned alive. Now NASA is eager to send a third crewed mission through the wormhole before learning what caused the first and second missions to fail. Again, seriously? The notion that postponing the mission would be a public relations disaster is ludicrous, given that the first two missions should themselves have been public relations disasters. Nothing could be worse for public relations than sending more astronauts to their deaths.

But this is meant to be a Lifetime plot. Don’t expect to find competent science fiction here. When the opportunity arises for an unexpected romance — unexpected by Catherine but not by readers who know that Lifetime plots taste better when the author adds some cheese — that relationship results in a predictable outcome. Naturally, the happy couple-to-be engages in silly getting-to-know-you banter while deciding how to deal with a threat to the existence of the human race.

I could go on, but it is enough to say that the story is simplistic, predictable, unbelievable, and dull. The mother-daughter bonding/fighting/rebonding scenes are formulaic and the ending is just ridiculous. Maybe Lifetime viewers will enjoy Vessel, but I can’t recommend it to science fiction fans.


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