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The Last Astronaut by David Wellington

Published by Orbit on July 23, 2019

The Last Astronaut is a first contact novel. Early in the story, the contact kills an astronaut. If you have seen any of the Alien movies, you’re familiar with the concept. Fortunately, although the novel feels like a patchwork of ideas borrowed from Alien and Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama and a couple of Star Trek episodes, the story offers a moderate measure of fun for readers, particularly those who don’t read much science fiction and are not put off by the absence of fresh ideas.

The story begins in the past. Sally Jansen is the mission commander of a crew traveling to Mars when something goes wrong. She jettisons a part of the ship to save the rest of it, killing a crew member and aborting the mission. Whether Sally is a hero for saving the ship and the rest of the crew or a failure for allowing a death divides opinion at NASA.

About 20 years later, Sunny Stevens is working for a private NASA competitor when he observes an object approaching Earth that has spontaneously started to slow. His employer doesn’t seem to care, so he quits and goes to work for NASA. Parminder Rao, an astrobiologist, is pulled from her project and assigned to the discovery. Sally Jansen is recruited to join the team, returning to NASA after a long absence. Windsor Hawkins is added as the representative from Space Force. The astronauts are sent to make first contact with what is assumed to be an alien vessel. They actually make second contact, as a ship launched by Stevens’ former employer beats them to the prize.

The dual themes of The Last Astronaut will be familiar to science fiction fans. First, our ignorance is vast. Any aliens that humans encounter are likely to be truly alien. Making assumptions based on our limited knowledge of how things work on Earth is more likely to impede than to assist understanding. Second, the tendency of hawks in or out of the military is to kill anything they don’t understand, and that tendency will certainly assert itself in any first contact with aliens.

The secret of the alien ship is revealed a bit more than halfway through the novel. Science fiction fans will have guessed that secret in the novel’s early pages (again, the concept is far from original) but the real question is what our intrepid space travelers will do once they learn the truth. Their actions are predictable, but they keep the story moving. The ending is so artificially upbeat that I didn’t buy it. Some of the action on the way to the ending is nevertheless entertaining in an unchallenging, summer beach read way.

A few details of the story don’t make much sense. For example, the description of its airlocks is difficult to reconcile with what we learn about the nature of the alien ship. More problematic are the melodramatic efforts to bolster Jansen’s heroism. The novel drags when expository sections remind the reader of Jansen’s fears and courage. At several points I was muttering “just get on with it.” About 20% of The Last Astronaut could have been trimmed. Even then, the story would not be meaty, but it would have been a better action/adventure novel if its efforts to make the reader feel sympathy for Jensen had been less forced.

If you want to read an action/adventure novel with science fiction trappings and you don’t mind stock characters, you might enjoy The Last Astronaut. If you have read a fair amount of science fiction, you won’t find anything fresh here.


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