Written by: S.J Morden
Published by: Gollancz
Synopsis: Frank Kittridge is serving life for murdering his son’s drug dealer. So when he’s offered a deal by Xenosystems Operations – the company that runs the prison – he takes it, even though it means swapping one life sentence for another. He’s been selected to help build the first permanent base on Mars. Unfortunately, his crew-mates are just as guilty of their crimes as he is – and he’ll have to learn to trust them if they’re to succeed. As the convicts set to work on the frozen wastes of Mars, the accidents multiply. Until Frank begins to suspect they might not be accidents at all…There’s a murderer amongst them, and everyone’s a suspect.
Any novels that feature its lead character stranded on Mars will naturally find themselves compared to Andy Weir’s global bestseller The Martian, and while One Way does share some of the same DNA as that book, S.J Morden’s murder-mystery narrative actually has more in common with Agatha Christie, specifically “And Then There Were None”. There is a real sense of tension in the isolated Mars Base One as the various convict construction workers begin to meet accidental deaths, and Morden manages to make you care for the eclectic mix of characters so that each loss matters. While it was surprisingly easy to guess the killer and their motivations, it was still enthralling to witness the accidents take place.
The novel’s protagonist Frank Kittridge is a likeable lead, despite the fact that he is serving a life sentence for murder, and naturally assumes a leadership role amongst this ‘chain gang’ of convicts sent to Mars to establish a permanent research facility there. I liked the attention to detail in the story, as our motley crew of space explorers are given extensive training on Earth before making the transition to the red planet. However, once the action shifted to Mars, I found myself having trouble visualising some of the more technical elements, such as the Habs themselves and the Mars landscape. A quick Google image search helped give me a better idea of size and scale, but as someone relatively unacquainted with the intricacies of Mars colonisation projects, I sometimes struggled to understand the geographies of the Mars Base One – perhaps illustrations may have helped?
Accompanying the convicts is the antagonistic astronaut Brack, who works directly for the corporation that is funding this project. Aggressive in tone and nature, he is the only non-convict in the team, and Frank’s promise of a ride home to Earth lies with ensuring his survival until NASA’s astronauts arrive. Morden slips in ‘leaked memos’ ahead of each chapter that provide some added context to the operation and the budget-focused attitude of Xenosystems’ executives. The whole decision to use convicts in place of trained astronauts is an exercise in penny-pinching and these continued ‘cut corners’ create significant problems for the team to overcome, such as hunger and a lack of resources. From the moment that Frank and his team step foot on Mars, it is a battle for survival against an environment that wants to kill them, and Morden does a brilliant job at making sure that concept is always front and centre, generating tension page after page.
Faster-paced than The Martian and very cinematic in scope, One Way is the very definition of a page-turner, blending hard sci-fi with a classic whodunnit storyline. It’s a great juxtaposition of modern and classic storytelling, and for the most part it works well. My biggest issue was with how easy it was to guess the murderer, and I think this was due to the fact that the book was presented as a murder-mystery from the outset. The cover itself read, “Eight Astronauts. One Killer. No Way Home”. If this hadn’t have been revealed, I would have thought the first few deaths were accidental like the characters in the book, and would not have been in detective mode from the outset. I can see why they revealed it – a murder-mystery set on Mars is a brilliant hook, and it’s what made me want to read the book, but I think it would have been better marketed differently. That said, One Way is still great fun even when you are one step ahead of the characters in the book, and it would make a terrific movie.
Score – ★★★
One Way is available as an eBook from Amazon Kindle, or collected in paperback format on Amazon and all good bookstores. An audiobook version is available for free on Audible, if you sign up for a free 3-month trial.