Since watching the first Alien movie, I have come to equate ill-lighted, deserted ship corridors with dread and danger, and in this respect Salvation Day fits the bill in a delightfully scary way.
The background: a few centuries before the novel’s time frame, Earth was devastated by an event called the Collapse, which brought humanity on the brink of extinction. Hauling itself up by its proverbial bootstraps, the survivors decided to rebuild a better world, although only partly succeeding: the Councils are enclaves where the inhabitants can enjoy an optimal quality of life, away from the huge stretches of desert left by the Collapse; in these barren areas end up the people who either refuse to live in the Councils or are not granted citizenship, and the harsh life they lead fosters an increasing animosity toward the ruling hierarchy.
While before the Collapse a number of colony ships had left Earth in search of a new home for humanity, almost all of them disappearing without a trace, for a long time space was not a priority, and only recently mankind started to look again toward the stars, its bolder attempt being the construction of the ship House of Wisdom, a massive research vessel that should have been the first attempt to reach out again to deep space. The dream, however, ended in nightmare when a deadly virus was released in the ship, killing everyone on board with the exception of a young child: since then, the vessel was placed in quarantine, enforced by a net of drones keeping everyone away.
As the story starts, a group of people belonging to a sect living in the deserted wastelands takes over a shuttle headed for one of the Moon cities, taking hostage a handful of graduate students, among them Jaswinder Bhattacharya, the sole survivor of the House of Wisdom. The kidnappers’ goal is to commandeer the derelict ship as a means of escape for the cult’s families, and to do that they need to deactivate the security drones using Jaswinder’s genetic imprint. The group is led by Zahra, daughter of the man accused of releasing the deadly virus on House of Wisdom, but they all respond to their charismatic leader Adam, whose promises of a better life have inspired them all.
No plan ever survives its field deployment, however, and things start to go awfully wrong: just a handful of people manages to board House of Wisdom, half the terrorist complement and four of the hostages, and what they find contradicts any information so far released by the Councils about the deaths of the ship’s crew. There are no indications of a viral infection, most of the corpses floating in microgravity showing signs of extreme violence, while others barricaded in isolated areas seem to have died suddenly without any mark on them. Jas knows that the official version was not the true one, but never said anything because he wanted to bury the terrible memories of the day in which he lost both his parents – still, he has no idea of the real threat facing the boarding party, and of the shocking discoveries waiting for them all on the deserted ship.
Reading the synopsis for Salvation Day, I thought it would turn out to be one of those blood-chilling thrillers where uncertainty about the situation and a hostile environment play a huge part in the story, and in some way it is – but in the end this novel is much more, especially where characters are concerned. Jas and Zahra are deeply flawed, and at first it’s not easy to create a connection with them: both scarred by traumatic events in their childhood they keep much of their inner workings bottled up, and for this reason they present to the outer world a façade that has little to do with their real personality. It’s only as the story moves forward, and we put together the little pieces of their lives’ puzzles that we come to see them in a different light, and to understand the reasons for their actions. The harrowing discoveries they make along the way help to create a sort of bridge between them – a tentative, unsteady one, granted – to the point that they find themselves working toward a common purpose: it’s interesting to learn they have both been led astray by lies, lies other visited upon them, lies they choose to believe because the alternative would be worse, and ultimately it’s the shared desire to expose those untruths that breaks the barriers between them.
As far as the story itself is concerned, it’s a deceptively conventional one, because the premise of the hijacking of a derelict ship does not walk the expected path, thanks to the twists and surprises disseminated through the story and enhanced by the excerpts of logs and diaries from the former doomed crew that pop up here and there building toward the final revelation – and let’s not forget the quotes from a message sent back in a probe by one of the colony ships departed before the Collapse, because it plays a vital role in the overall plot.
What’s more, in the honored tradition of science fiction narrative, Salvation Day offers much food for thought about the issues of our present, seen through the filter of the future: in this case it’s about the manipulation of truth in the name of higher goals or about the moral questions facing those who have the resources for survival, like the Councils, in respect of those who struggle in the wastelands, where it’s far too easy for desperate people to fall under the influence of any would-be dictator like the cult leader Adam.
This is a story with many layers, skillfully blended into a highly suspenseful background, and one that unfolds before your eyes not unlike a movie: I for one would appreciate seeing this turned into one, because its claustrophobic atmosphere, steeped in darkness barely illuminated by red emergency lights, from which emerge the floating corpses of the dead crew, would be very effective on screen just as it is in this well-crafted book.