BOOK REVIEW: The Last Astronaut, by David Wellington

Rating: 3 out of 5.
  • A Standalone Novel
  • Published by Orbit
  • First published in 2019
  • A Horror-fuelled First Contact
  • 361 pages

Sally Jansen was the last astronaut. When a mission went wrong and astronauts died, it was Jansen who shouldered the blame. But when a mysterious object approaches the Earth, it is Jansen who must lead the mission to make contact . . .

The Last Astronaut is an odd mix of two quite different genres. The first is Hard SF, and the second is Horror. Here at least, these two genres don’t sit together very well. Hard SF is rooted in our present understanding of science, so it’s a genre where we expect hard and fast answers. When something goes wrong, it is picked apart in terms we understand, and the situation is either resolved or abandoned in a logical fashion. Horror is the opposite. Almost all fears are rooted in the fear of the unknown. Horror is a genre that falls apart when we get the answer. being stalked through the darkness by an unknown monster is far scarier than fighting a man with a knife. It’s not necessarily more dangerous, but the fear levels are heightened. When the genres mix, you end up with a war between the need for answers and the knowledge that those answers can’t match our own imaginings. The Last Astronaut handles this disparity in approach by splitting itself pretty evenly down the middle. The first half is pretty solid Hard SF, while the second is firmly in the horror tradition.

It probably won’t surprise you to learn that the first half is the one I prefer. Wellington has done his research (including consulting two actual astronauts, as referenced in the acknowledgements), and that gives the early Earth-bound sections a healthy dose of realism. The picture Wellington paints is a pessimistic one, with crewed missions a thing of the past, and NASA now relegated to probes and satellites. There’s also a rather unsubtle Space-X stand-in that serves as a cautionary tale about corporate greed. It’s not a particularly nuanced take, but it serves the story well. Now, the thing about NASA is that each mission is very detail-oriented. There might only be a team of three in the capsule, but there is a team of hundreds back on the ground. That vast cast has been streamlined for the purposes of a novel, but it largely holds together as both narrative and realism.

And then we get to the alien object. It looks like an asteroid, is interstellar in origin, and utterly horrifying within. I won’t go into details about the nature of the horror, because it’s best approached blindly. But it does signal an end to the firmer science of the first half. For me, the horror fell short. Not because it’s bad in its own right, but because it’s such a jarring change from the first half. If you’re more into horror, you might well like it, but I came away rather disappointed.

Wellington’s writing is pretty clear cut, no-nonsense and direct. One interesting narrative technique is including crew confessionals as in-universe extracts at various points along the book. These breaks in the narrative allow Wellington to drop out of the broader perspective in order to dive into someone’s head for a while. Think talking heads, but in novel form. The semi-documentary aspect of this and a few other extracts throughout the book add an extra layer to the story. This runs through both halves of the book, and is the only continuous bridge between the divided genres of each half.

The Last Astronaut doesn’t quite manage to balance the two genres it employs, but it’s still a quick and easy read with a strong first half, and some great near-future ideas.


If you enjoyed this book, you might also like:
The Apollo Murders, by Chris Hadfield
Walking to Aldebaran, by Adrian Tchaikovsky
Project Hail Mary, by Andy Weir

Published by Alex Hormann

I'm a writer, reader, and farmer, with an interest in all things speculative.

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