Astronaut in outer space

Book review: ‘The Deep Sky’ by Yume Kitasei

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This sci-fi survival thriller tenderly expresses its central character’s sense of unbelonging – but introduces intriguing ideas only to leave them unexplored.

‘The Deep Sky’ (St Martin’s Press, £25.99, ISBN 9781250875334) is the debut novel from Brooklyn-based author Yume Kitasei. In the near future, Earth is reaching complete climate collapse – mass extinctions, refugee crises, crackling geopolitical tensions – so 80 young people are selected from a competitive programme to travel to a remote habitable planet and establish a new home for humanity. During the journey, a deliberate explosion kills three members of the crew and knocks the spaceship off course. Asuka, who witnessed the explosion, sets out to find the saboteur.

‘The Deep Sky’ presents some fascinating potential conflicts. All 80 members of the crew are expected to bear a child during the mission for the purpose of populating the distant planet, so the crew is female dominated with a third of them pregnant at any one time. War breaks out on Earth between the US and China, with leadership of this international mission at stake, and the crew (always headed by a partnership of one American and one Chinese member) only receiving fragmented updates via the spaceship’s comms system.

Either of these two ideas alone could have been the foundation of a rich sci-fi novel, but, frustratingly, neither is explored with as much depth as they deserve. There is a limited sense of how Asuka feels about the inevitability of motherhood on this mission, or of how these geopolitical tensions affects her relationships with her crewmates.

This is not due to any inability on the part of the author to manage interiority. Particularly in the alternating flashback chapters that follow Asuka’s training before the mission, Kitasei effectively depicts her pervasive sense of unbelonging. Asuka is chosen to represent Japan in the mission, but is conflicted – she is only half-Japanese and raised in the US. She has no specialism within the crew. She has a fraught relationship with her mother, and they become estranged just before the mission departs. It is wholly believable that one who seems to belong nowhere would choose to leave Earth.

The limited depth to which those speculative concepts are explored is probably due to the busyness of ‘The Deep Sky’. There are many characters – most of whom, despite their demographic diversity, speak with the same voice – but we are only made to care about Asuka and her mother. This would, perhaps, be a more satisfying novel if the central (ultimately rather conventional) mystery was dispensed with entirely, and Kitasei instead focused on the natural tensions between the crewmates under these peculiar circumstances.

‘The Deep Sky’ works as a thriller; it is pacy and its mystery is well-managed. Alternatively, it could have been marketed as a young adult survival story, and it would have delivered. But you cannot help but feel a certain frustration that – given its interesting conceits, its simple but heartfelt examination of unbelonging – it was on the brink of being something more. We ought to watch with anticipation to see how Kitasei develops in her subsequent novels.

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