I received this book from Orbit Books, through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. My thanks to both of them for the opportunity to read this story.
Mars has always been identified as the next frontier for space exploration, and in recent years the interest toward the red planet increased exponentially, with the probability of a manned mission drawing closer and closer. It’s no surprise then that genre literature turned again its focus on the colonization of Mars as humanity’s next step toward building a new home away from our birthplace: One Way is one such story, and since it’s based on Mars it does of course address the vital theme of survival in a hostile environment, but it adds an interesting premise and twist.
It’s no secret that a manned mission toward another planet, and the construction of a scientific and residential base there, require not only careful planning and anticipating any kind of danger the astronauts might face, but also a huge budget that must provide for anything the exploring team might need to survive and thrive. One Way postulates that NASA would sub-contract the actual building of the base to Xenosystems Operations, a private corporation whose CEOs decide that the best way to make the operation profitable while keeping the costs down would be to send convicts to Mars as a workforce. Enter our main character, Frank Kittridge, sentenced to life imprisonment for murder: Frank, like the other six convicts who will constitute his team, is given a choice between languishing in prison until he dies or doing something constructive with his time – once on Mars he will still be a prisoner (after all, where would he escape to?), but he will get the opportunity of redeeming himself through work.
The group of detainees is put through some training (I’ll come back to this in a short while) and sent to Mars in suspended animation together with a guard who will supervise their work. Once reached their destination, though, the work gang discovers that not all the necessary supplies are there, and that they have to face a few dangerous treks across the Martial soil to retrieve them, and what they have does not exactly respect the required quality standards. Which is not at all surprising when any kind of Evil Corporation is involved… That’s not their biggest problem anyway, because one by one the convicts start dying in freak accidents, and it soon becomes clear that there is a killer in their midst, bent on eliminating them one by one.
As far as premises go, this is an intriguing one – even though it would have been preferable if the theme of the killer eliminating the inmates one by one had come as a surprise and not as a blurb revelation – but unfortunately it did not prevent me from being somewhat disappointed with the overall story, or the characterization.
For starters, Frank and his companions are given only a very basic training in the kind of challenges they will face once on Mars, or in the way they must operate the equipment: granted, their mission is on a restricted budget, and we learn from the memos interspersed between chapters that XO is trying to cut every possible corner, but still it seems counter-productive to send insufficiently trained people in a situation where the slightest mistake, or lack of proper knowledge, can kill them. It’s clear they are expendable, and no one can ignore this simple fact – not even the convicts themselves – but still they are being sent to build a base where astronauts and scientists (people that certainly are considered more valuable) will need to live, and survive: if the “cannon fodder” is unable to provide a safe environment for the second wave of colonists, what will the outcome be? It made little sense to me that NASA would rely so heavily – and blindly! – on such a crooked arrangement without checking regularly on their progress…
Once the dead bodies start to pile up, there is no surprise in discovering that they are not accidents (we were informed of this from the very start, remember?), so there is no room for doubt, since the first tragic “accident”, that something is indeed afoot, and that one of the other seven people on Mars must be responsible – except for Frank, of course, because the story is told from his point of view, and we know he’s not the murderer. In my opinion, this choice further detracts from the building of suspense, because we readers know that our p.o.v. character was not involved in any of the deaths: observing the events from a remote perspective, or turning Frank into an unreliable narrator, would have increased the tension and made the murder mystery less predictable.
The characters – with the exception of Frank, who enjoys a little more depth than the others – range from the bland to the stereotype, without reaching any greater definition, and ultimately look like mere props set there to move the story along: we have the sharp-tongued doctor with a dark shadow over her past, who is far more caring than her acerbic demeanor shows; there is the young tech wiz who can do miracles with a keyboard and couple of power cords; the big man covered in threatening tattoos who is revealed as the gentlest soul on the planet; and so on… And then there is Brack, the guard sent to keep the convicts in line: there could be no more obtusely mean creature in the whole Solar System, and he’s such a distillate of the worst one could find among prison guards and/or drill sergeants, that he ends up being a caricature rather than a character.
Despite these misgivings, I kept on reading because One Way is still an entertaining story once the Inner Critic is temporarily moved aside, and the final section of the novel finally gains the momentum and the thrill that it sorely needed, closing with an open ending that could go either way and that opens the door to a sequel. Is it enough to motivate me to look for it? Maybe. I would not mind visiting Mars again and seeing what happens next…