As I start another tranche of titles to review here at The Scifi and Fantasy Reviewer, I decided to take a look around and see if I could find some short scifi reads that looked interesting to me; my reading time is more limited than I’d like at the moment, and while I absolutely love scifi and have done since I was a kid, there does currently seem to be a tendency in the genre for authors to focus on writing multi-book series rather than novellas and single-shot novels. I think this trend has been aided by the introduction of self-publishing through the Kindle and other platforms and the freedom and flexibility that they subsequently provide – and in many ways that’s absolutely fantastic, because it means so many authors are finally able to have their voices heard at long last without the restrictions of the traditional publishing route. The flip-side, however, does seem to be a tendency to write an entire series based in a scifi setting, often because it’s profitable to do so – introducing the reader to the universe with the first novel, often free or set at a minimal price, and then slowly increasing the price on future titles once they’re hooked. Now that’s just good economic sense and I can hardly begrudge authors that want to earn a living that way, and it’s hardly unique to the scifi genre – but as a reader and reviewer with less time to read, I personally find it difficult to make the decision to jump into a novel that’s just the first in an often lengthy and unfinished series. Sometimes, I just want a short, self-contained story where I can have the satisfaction of knowing that the last page is the end of the story and I can then jump into the next title from the next author or another genre entirely. As such, when I came across Humanity Lost by Meghan Douglass on social media, I was immediately attracted to it for several reasons. It was a novelette – a rare beast in the publishing world these days, and it was a self-contained story. It was also being marketed as a piece of scifi horror, which if you’ve read any of my reviews here on the blog before, you’ll know that I both love this niche subgenre, and also often bemoan the fact that there’s so little of it written these days. All of those facts, together with a striking and minimalist piece of cover art by Michael Douglass, and a back-cover blurb that mentioned a desperate crew racing against time to save humanity and with terrible sacrifices to make to do so, ensured that I would be reviewing this at the very start of this next tranche of reviews.
Douglass wastes no time in throwing us into the action as the story opens, blaring alarms and strobing red lights prematurely waking the crew of the Valhalla from their statis sleep pods and informing them that something, somewhere has gone wrong on the ship. They’ve awakened in the lightless depths of space, when they should only have risen from their slumbers upon arriving in orbit around Earth, and it soon becomes clear that their vessel is in serious danger; something has struck the vessel as it made the return journey to Earth, and damaged the hull sufficiently that the vessel may not be able to continue its voyage. That’s not just bad news for the crew – who only have enough supplies for a short time out of stasis – but also for the whole of humanity. For in this future, humanity has reached the edges of the solar system and colonised the planets and moons found there, only to eventually run out of resources to act as fuel. Tottering on the edge of annihilation, enough fuel is scraped together to allow the Valhalla to be sent out into the distant depths of space on a mission with one goal: secure enough raw resources to power a fleet of Generation Ships waiting in the solar system to venture out and secure humanity’s future in the stars. The weight of all of humanity is on the shoulders of the Valhalla’s small crew – a burden no-one should ever have to carry – and not all of them are up to the task. Bleary-eyed from stasis sleep, Captain Dahmer must gather his crew and then assess the damage to his ship – and then begin to make difficult decisions in a desperate attempt to safeguard humanity’s destiny. As he does so, and the reality of their situation becomes clear, Dahmer realises that not all of his rag-tag crew may make it back alive. Food rations dwindle as repairs take days, and then weeks, and tempers fray even amongst this elite group of astronauts as it becomes obvious that few, if any, of them are likely to get back to Earth alive.
Douglass effortlessly creates a tense, paranoiac atmosphere onboard the Valhalla as the narrative progresses, deftly portraying the quiet terror of physical and mental exhaustion as some crew members work themselves to the bone to make repairs, while others have little choice but to stay in their quarters and move as little as possible to conserve energy. Then an accident leads to injury, and from there to a possible solution to their problems – but one that results in some genuinely unsettling and yet inarguably logical arguments for the astronauts. It’s a brilliantly conceived plot, one that Douglass unfolds carefully and thoughtfully, in turn making it even more shocking to the reader as a result. Taken together with an unexpected twist in the narrative in the last few pages, one that puts the crews increasingly morbid activities in an even darker light, it all makes for a tense, enthralling and deeply memorable slice of scifi horror.
Humanity Lost is a sterling debut by Meghan Douglass, and one of the best pieces of science-fiction horror I’ve read in quite some time. Douglass expertly blends together the endless, cold and uncaring nature of space, and the cramped and claustrophobic confines of a small spaceship to forge an isolated and deeply unsettling location for a story that amplifies the worst attributes of humanity as the crew of the Valhalla struggle with dwindling supplies and the burden of a mission that will literally save or end all of humanity. Add to that some excellent characterisation despite the small wordcount, stylistic prose and a masterful development of atmosphere, and you have all the ingredients for a memorable first work from an author I suspect will go far in both the scifi and horror genres. I greatly look forward to seeing what Douglass comes up with next – I’ll certainly be reading and reviewing it.