One Way by S. J. Morden

The Blurb On The Back:

There’s a murderer amongst them, and everyone’s a suspect …

Frank is a criminal.  He and a select group of inmates have been offered the same deal: die in prison or live on Mars.

They’ve been recruited to build the first Mars base, and they’ll have to learn to trust each other if they want to survive.  Not easy when your crewmates are convicts.

Then the first accident happens, and the next. Until Frank begins to suspect they might not be accidents at all …

Time is running out.  But how do you stop a killer when it could be any one of you?  

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

It’s 2046.  Frank Kittridge is 51 years old and currently incarcerated in a Californian prison after shooting dead his son’s drug dealer in front of dozens of witnesses.  Frank is at peace with his crime – it was the only way to save his son’s life – and accepts the fact that he’s going to die in gaol.  But then a man from a company called Xenosystems comes to visit him with a special deal: a transfer and the chance to use his background in construction to be involved in building the first human colony on Mars.

Frank accepts the offer – seeing it as a chance to redeem himself in the eyes of his son and wife, neither of whom have had any contact with him since his trial – and sets out for a training camp.  There he meets his fellow crew: Brack (the sole civilian who’s in charge of the mission and not afraid to abuse his authority), Alice (the medic and a notorious angel of death); Marcy (planet transport and driver responsible for a horrendous highway accident); Declan (electrician); Zero (farming and hydroponics); Zeus (a former Aryan turned Christian who manages plumbing and pipes); and Demetrius (a nervous teenager with a stammer who hacked the wrong people and is now monitoring the colony’s computers).  Most of the other convicts are killers and none had any hope of getting out of prison so with no choice but to work together, they try to get on with each other and develop a grudging sense of trust until they’re put into stasis and sent to Mars …

And it’s on Mars that things start to go wrong.

Because no matter how much training and preparation the convicts have had, Mars is an unforgiving and hostile planet. Technology goes wrong.  Accidents happen.  And slowly the death toll rises until Frank and the other survivors begin to wonder if these really are accidents or whether one of them has decided not to play nice after all …

S J Morden’s SF thriller has a fantastic set-up and convinces on both the difficulties and practicalities of setting up a colony on Mars and the rationales for using convicts but the thriller element is disappointing, partly because the supporting characters are thinly drawn so their deaths lack impact but mainly because the antagonist is so obvious from the start, which means that the book lacks necessary tension but I would still read the sequel.

The main reason to read this book is because of the way Morden sets up the details involved in establishing a Mars colony – both in terms of the practicalities for physically living there and the commercial realities that drive the process (which come through from the set of corporate emails and meeting notes that Morden cleverly peppers through each chapter to form what’s essentially a story within a story).  I really appreciated the thought process that Morden’s deployed here as he uses his imagination to come up with some solutions for issues but also shows the mundane realities behind constructing habitable spaces, what they would be like, how they would function and then the daily grind of having to maintain them.  Some of the best scenes for me are where the base has been established and Frank is doing his daily routine to keep it going and check that everything’s okay.

Frank himself is fairly well drawn as the main character.  I largely believed in him as a man who decided that the only way to save his son was to carry out an unforgiveable crime and who has come to terms with how that in turn has tragically cost him his family.  It’s interesting that Morden also pitches him as a man who is afraid of the power that others – notably Brack – have over him and who defers to their authority, in turn making him reluctant to step into the leadership role that is necessary in order for the convicts to complete their mission.

However while I did believe in how prison-life has sent him into a mental rut that makes him try to concentrate on himself and his own situation, I didn’t believe in his lack of curiosity – especially as it does start to become very evident quite early on that someone’s taking out the convicts.  I also didn’t believe his slowness to grasp who the antagonist is because it is practically sign-posted from the start and although I could understand how desperation would make him want to believe in a key offer made near the start of the book, I never bought his lack of curiosity as to whether that offer had been repeated to others.

The other key weakness of the book is the lack of relationship building, which makes it quite difficult to care when some of the side characters die – especially given that some of them (notably Zero and Declan) are so thinly drawn.  As a result, when the death toll starts to accelerate it didn’t feel as though there’d been an increase in the stakes and while there is some good tension as the survivors try to work out who they can trust it all just lacked that vital punch that it really needed and again, the obviousness of the antagonist meant that the big reveal lacked oomph.

For all this I did enjoy this book as the life on Mars elements fascinated me and kept me turning the pages and the book ends with a set-up for a sequel, which I would definitely read.

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