Book review: Do You Dream of Terra-Two? by Temi Oh

(cover image courtesy Simon and Schuster Australia)

People love new beginnings.

There is something intoxicatingly appealing about the idea that poor decisions can be remedied, mistakes erased and in the case of the comprehensive slow destruction of planet earth and humanity itself, a whole new world, complete with a verdant virginal society, brought into being.

It’s a beguiling prospect, and one that has consumed the mind of many an literary, televisual or cinematic creative mind, but it is worth considering, as the tagline on Temi Oh’s brilliantly-good Do You Dream of Terra-Two? enjoins us – “How far would you go for a better world?”

It’s the central premise on which this impressive novel pivots, a cautionary pause that Oh explores with gusto and real understanding of the human condition and which she infuses with a masterful emotional resonance and characters so vividly alive and compellingly-relatable that you feel every moment of their mixed emotion journey out into the furthest edges of our galaxy … and far beyond.

If you’re not necessarily a sci-fi devotee, it’s also worth observing that the book is more of a sociological excursion into the highs and lows of human interaction, ambition, hope and desire; that it is set in the context of a colonisation trip to a lush, fertile world 23 years travel from earth is simply a good excuse to see what people do in tight, confined, high-consequence situations.

“Jesse had grown up wondering how it felt to be people like Harrison Belgrave. Surely boys like Harry believed that greatness was their birthright. Strode through life, their hands open for the Oscar, the medals, the knighthood, while people like Jesse crouched in their shadow. The awkward interloper. (P. 139)

Which is pretty much what you might expect.

They bond, they fight, they idealistically draw near and antagonistically pull away, they pour their hearts into their activities and just as quickly withdraw them, and they discover, very quickly that expectations and reality do not always follow each other in an orderly, pleasing fashion.

In other words, life as we know it but with stakes far higher than our commutes to public each day on public transport or our quest to land that amazing new job we know will change our life.

And the stakes in Do You Dream of Terra-Two? are immense.

Not simply in the ways you might expect; yes, the earth is dying, a common element in these kinds of tales, but not in some cataclysmic fashion, not yet, with the real issue at hand is whether the six young astronauts on the mission, and their older more experienced counterparts, can make it to the utopian paradise of an untouched earth-like planet and whether they can fashion a new society in the process.

Depending on where you are in this tautly-told, thematically rich story, it’s either yes, they can, no they can’t or what the hell was everyone thinking when they sent these off to the middle of galactic nowhere?

There aren’t a lot of huge epic, plot points or breathtakingly-tense twists-and-turns but Oh doesn’t need them; rather she concentrates on the drama of ideals and reality clashing, using the heart-pounding episodes that do punctuate the narrative to reinforce the effect of the vagaries, strengths and flaws of human nature at play in the small, confined spaces of the Damocles.

Interestingly, the world from the ship departs is an alternate version of our own, where space travel has been practised since the early twentieth century and interstellar travel is so advanced, though still dangerous and by no means a walk in the park, that heading out to the stars is something kids of the first couple of decades of the twenty-first century take as a potential birthright.

But as Oh makes painfully clear, not everyone will get to go, and not everyone should necessarily go even if they are selected.

In fact, the Beta, as they’re known – Poppy (running from a disinterested, self-obsessed mother), Harry (consumed by achievement in a bid to impress an uncaring father), Jesse (afraid of dying and propelled by a manic desire to escape), Juno (matter of fact but unsure of what she wants), Astrid, her twin sister (a believer in the spiritual side of trying to reach a new world), and Eliot (obsessed with the loss of someone close to him, to them all really, and unable to move beyond it, despite heading into the stars) – could be all be considered to be the last people you would send on a mission so critical.

“A long note rose from the clarinet, echoed across the crew module, and in that moment Juno realized she was lonely. She had continued – in the only way she knew how – through the tutorials, through the weeks and months, as the excitement of space travel flaked away and living in a confined space with her crewmates began to feel like a bad marriage. Twenty years more of this, Juno thought wearily. Twenty years of Fae’s resentment and Poppy’s self-centred sorrow. Eliot’s broken heart. Harry’s competitiveness. Jesse’s desire. Astrid’s dreams, which no one could share. And the cold, and this loneliness.” (PP. 315-16)

But here’s the thing – they are no better or no worse than of us, at least when it comes to expression of their humanity.

Sure, they’re bright, capable and talented and have been trained for six years from the age of 13 in a hothouse academic situation for this mission, but they are subject to the same fears of failure, the same regrets, joys, thrills and disappointments as we all are, all of it amplified by the fact that they are just 19 going on 20 and yet expected to behave like full-blown adults which they most patently are not.

Oh explores the fraught ground that lies between the years of preparation and expectation, and the stark reality of finally heading off to Terra-Two leaving friends and family behind, never to be seen again, with captivating skill and insight, all of it delivered with prose that is economical and yet poetically-consuming.

Do You Dream of Terra-Two? is a book of grand big ideas, base human responses and the messy meshing of the two, that takes a deep dive into that messy world that lies between what we dream of and what we get, between hope and fulfillment, and does in such an absorbing way that you wish the book would go on far beyond its 518 utterly-engrossing pages.

So profoundly impacting is this book that it stays with you long after its exquisitely well-realised ending that is both a nod to vaulting achievement and an accession to the fact that that often isn’t enough, its central ideas explored with relatable depth and understanding that you can see yourself in each and every character, a masterful achievement given the odds of any of us following them into space are remote at best.

But then the ideas explored in Do You Dream of Terra-Two? have resonance and truth for all of us, no matter where we are and what we’re doing, and it’s this universality of experience that makes this book such a memorable, thought-provoking and heart-changing read.

Temi Oh (image courtesy official Temi Oh Twitter account)

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