Nothing captures the imagination like trying to rescue someone in impossible circumstances and it doesn’t get much more impossible than the cold and unforgiving surrounds of outer space.
An environment noted for its hostility to life as much as its startling beauty, journeying into space is not for the fainthearted who, if something goes wrong, and in gripping tales like Across the Void, which begins its story on Christmas Day 2067 when Commander Maryam aka May Knox wakes up inside a medical pod, alone in a wrecked and doomed spaceship, they always do, are essentially on their own in their epic battle for survival.
What adds extra poignancy to May’s struggle to beat the odds is the fact that she isn’t on her own, and that while her ex-husband Stephen, a brilliant though socially-awkward NASA scientist is hundreds of millions of miles away back on Earth – she is caught between Jupiter and Mars after a mission gone wrong to the icy moon of Europa – he, along with best friend and designer of the spaceship Raj, is doing everything he can to save her.
Only, of course, this being a rescue thriller set in space, one which switches effortlessly between past events and current threatening predicament, his efforts are possibly being thwarted by someone somewhere who it appears doesn’t want the good people of Hawking II to make it back to Earth in one piece … or at at all.
May, a feisty, eminently capable woman who was taught by her formidable mother Eve to take no prisoners in every area of her life – she is both her greatest asset and worst enemy, depending on the moment – is unaware of these machinations in a thriller that begins with the strains of “O, Holy Night” and ends up with the kind of good vs twisted and violent priorities battle in the unforgiving blackness of space that will have you on the edge of your seat. (Assuming you’re sitting up to read; if you don’t start that way, the action is such that sitting back in too relaxed a fashion is all but impossible.)
“Cold as a grave, May thought as she trod into the corridor on her way to the galley. This was her first look at the ship outside of the infirmary and it appeared in start contrast to what she’s triumphantly piloted out of space dock months ago. The darkness was consuming, save for the dim flicker of a few weak emergency lights scattered throughout. The bright white beam of May’s torch cut a narrow path along the metal floor, but failed to penetrate further. Outside of the low engine hum, the silence was as pervasive as the dark.” (P. 18)
As a rescue adventure, Across the Void is flawlessly executed.
May is a capable but understandably vulnerable hero who, after some initial disorientation borne of being locked away in the medical pod and awoken suddenly when the medical procedures sustaining her through a life-threatening illness ran their course (due to the using up of the supplies sustaining it). goes all out to save herself.
It’s the only way she knows to approach anything but if she was simply someone Amazonian god-like person who surmounted every obstacle, and thanks to the state of the ship and the actions of shadowy unknown people, those obstacles are considerable, your interest in this scintillating drama would quickly begin to wane, and be forgotten quickly upon completion.
But S. K. Vaughn, the nom de plume of a writer based in San Francisco, adds some powerful emotional resonance to the story by investing the relationship of May and Stephen with a complexity and yet flawed accessibility that highlights again and again that no matter how successful we are, the sheer act of relating to someone else can undo us all.
Or build us up; it all depends, naturally, on how open we are, and how we handle the good and the bad that life, whether in space or on Earth, throws at us.
May and Stephen haven’t handled it all that well, with a succession of relationship-busting events, told in elegantly-delivered flashback that slides effortlessly in-between the titanic struggle that winningly occupies much of the narrative, making it clear that their relationship is more broken than it’s not.
And yet, love is not quite that easily vanquished; what makes Across the Void so compelling, is that it deftly and with great nuanced insight understands and articulates how complex love can be and that it is not simply some sweet sentiments slapped on a card or written onto a cheap plaque in a misbegotten souvenir shop.
Real love is muscular and real, capable of as much vaulting wonder as fallen messiness, and it is expressed throughout this deeply-immersive tale of survival against the odds again and again in startlingly good fashion.
It adds real depth and resonance to the story, helped along by the fact that May is suffering from temporary retrograde amnesia, meaning she has forgotten many of the recent events that created the rift between her and Stephen and is effectively beginning from scratch.
It is the returning of her memories, and the great unwinding of efforts to save May, even as she also manages to save herself too, that inform Across the Void with so much emotional substance and grit and elevate beyond a mere rush to save life and love before it is too late.
“After Stephen had viewed the ship for a few more minutes, he and Ian went back to the concrete bunker to finish their discussion. Even though it appeared Ian was going to attempt to rescue May, something Stephen was grateful for, his motivations had not been made clear. Also, the fact that it was a foregone conclusion put Stephen off. He wondered whether, if he had not reached out, Ian would have even told him about his intentions. Why would he?” (P. 313)
It is a superlative piece of speculative science fiction.
It treats the near-ish world of mid-to-late 2060s Earth as a fully-functioning, thriving entity, one unencumbered by many of the threats currently weighing the human race down, and which is capable of sending people into space in ways that make modern efforts look more than a little antiquated and forced.
And yet, for all the technological marvels, people are still people, good and bad, a reality which infuses Across the Void with a gripping humanity with which you will identify, page after emotionally and action-rich page.
You care for each and every one of the central characters with a fierceness and a passion because they are fully-formed creations capable of so many astounding things and yet held firmly to Earth at times by feet of clay so heavy and profound that all their achievements and good efforts come so close to foundering more than flying to the heavens.
But isn’t that the way of humanity (and it must be said AIs like Eve on board the ship who becomes May’s closest friend and a vital ally working to ensure she lives)? So talented and capable of so very much, even rescuing someone far out in space, and yet too often the architects of our own demise, emotional or otherwise.
Across the Void, a brilliant science fiction debut by the author who recognises intimately how the expression of true humanity is the making of stories from this genre, is breathtakingly, heartwarmingly and searingly good, a book which knows how great we can be and yet how low we can fall and which nevertheless dares to puts its money on the former state of being winning out.