Russell Letson Reviews One Way by S.J. Morden

One Way, S.J. Morden (Orbit 978-0316522182, $15.99, 391pp, tp) April 2018.

One Way is the first novel under the byline S.J. Morden, but not the first novel by the writer behind it, Simon Morden, producer of The Samuil Petrovitch Trilogy (winner of the 2012 Philip K. Dick Award) and a fistful of other SF and fantasy volumes. I’m not sure why the change in byline, since the tone and attitude of this hardnosed new novel would seem to fit well with the noirish, post-apocalyptic Petrovitch books.

The front cover of my advance copy bears, instead of title and author, the lines “EIGHT ASTRONAUTS. ONE KILLER. NO WAY HOME.” This, along with the back-cover teaser copy, suggests a science-fictional version of Agatha Christie’s countdown-murder-mystery And Then There Were None – and this pattern is present and crucial, but it takes some time to kick in. Instead, the bulk of the novel is a detailed account of the process of building a permanent NASA research base on Mars, with the twist that the work crew consists of condemned criminals sent on (as the title indicates) a no-return-ticket trip to Mars as an alternative to serving out life-without-parole prison sentences on Earth. Additional twists unwind gradually via chapter-opening snippets of information from the files of prime contractor Xenosystems Operations, in which a corporate business agenda is revealed, and it becomes clear that All Is Not As It Seems on this project.

Meanwhile, though, this is the story of the (often literal) nuts-and-bolts process of training for and executing the construction of the Mars base: the challenges of working in a vacuum suit, of handling tools and materials in a lethally unforgiving environment, of not wasting or outrunning supplies before the construction site becomes self-sustaining – all this on top of the challenge of forming a functional team out of the unpromising raw material of nothing-to-lose lifers, eight people socialized by prison rather than the esprit of pioneering or science.

The book’s protagonist and close-third-person viewpoint is middle-aged former construction company owner Frank Kittredge, the unrepentant killer of his son’s drug dealer. Through him we see (but not necessarily see through) the collection of convicts whose terrestrial talents (doctor, trucker, hacker, oil-rig plumber, pot farmer) are to be adapted to the job, and we get an unpleasantly close look at their Xenosystems civilian overseer, a nasty piece of work named Brack (specialty unspecified), whose management style runs to bullying and abuse and eventually worse:

I don’t like any of you. You’re a mix of killers and perverts and the just-too-stupid-not-to-get-caught. No one is going to miss you here on Earth. That’s why you were chosen. You’re the things we forgot we had.

Brack’s opinion is not to be relied on, though. The convicts complete an exhaustive and exhausting training regimen and eventually become, if not exactly a happy family, at least a competent and functional construction gang. This hard-SF proceduralism is convincingly detailed, and it also unfolds Kittredge’s character, which does not “grow” so much as adapt to the rigors of the physical and psychological environment. Thanks in part to Kittredge’s human-wrangling skills, his unpromising teammates also respond to the dangers and constraints of their situation much better than Brack’s characterization would predict.

And about halfway through the book, one by one, they start to die. The first death could be an equipment failure and the second looks like suicide, but as the project advances, so do the fatalities, and Kittredge becomes convinced that someone is a serial killer. The claustrophobic quarters of the station-in-progress (which is also a panopticon prison) and the deadly Marscape become the setting for a dangerous game of Clue, with a dwindling cast that harbors both suspects and potential victims.

Since this is a mystery as well as a planetary-pioneering adventure, the Spoiler Curtain must remain drawn across many of details. But no canny reader will miss the significance of the fragmentary Xenosystems memos and recordings that provide the link between the two sides of the story line. The payoff plays fair with the book’s genres and the characters, without reducing the whole to a deadly puzzle-machine – Morden remains more Dashiell Hammett than Christie, which in my book is a good thing.

Russell Letson, Contributing Editor, is a not-quite-retired freelance writer living in St. Cloud, Minnesota. He has been loitering around the SF world since childhood and been writing about it since his long-ago grad school days. In between, he published a good bit of business-technology and music journalism. He is still working on a book about Hawaiian slack key guitar.

This review and more like it in the July 2018 issue of Locus.

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