The world is dying. The race for the stars has begun and Britain is determined to be the first to reach the promised world of Terra-Two. A small, fast ship will carry 4 experienced astronauts and 6 carefully-selected teenagers to prepare Terra-Two for colonisation. But this golden opportunity may not be what it seems…
Temi Oh’s space colonisation debut was billed as The 100 meets The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, which was always going to take an awful lot of living up to (ahem, even for someone who has never seen The 100). So let’s get that comparison out of the way early: the only similarity to Small Angry Planet is that Do You Dream of Terra-Two? is a character study of a motley crew on a spaceship.
The difficulty with poorly-chosen publisher blurbs is that they get you off on the wrong foot. The Wayfarer flies on pure, untarnished charm; Temi Oh’s Damocles flies on ambition. I found it hard to warm to its crew, and tricky to particularly care about their goals and setbacks, although I soon found myself immersed in their conflicts.
The Beta have competed since they hit puberty for the honour to be the first to fly to Terra-Two, the Earth-like planet that a failing world has fixed on as their best bet for a new
planet to destroy home. Chosen for their intelligence and aptitude, tested for psychological stability and compatibility, each is a specialist uniquely suited for the twenty-year journey. With them go legends: the Russian engineer whose revolutionary drive will get them there; a botanist who helped bring life back to Mars; a hero pilot and a empathetic doctor.
Given the hothouse pressure, it’s more of a shock than perhaps it should be when OPENING CHAPTER SPOILER one of the Beta commits suicide the day before launch. Ara’s death is freighted with unexplored implications: the brightest, the happiest, the best beloved who nonetheless chose to jump into the filthy Thames. The narrative focuses on those she leaves behind as the rest of the Beta are torn between their shock and their fear that they’ll be taken off the mission.
When they go – rushed off-planet with no time to grieve – her ghost travels with them. Her last-minute replacement Jesse has no chemistry with the tight-knit Beta, and is too excited to stop himself saying exactly the wrong things. He too is haunted – by a prophecy that makes him certain he’ll die if he doesn’t make the Beta. Not good enough to a be pilot, he switched to botany – only to be beaten to second place by poor Ara. Terra-Two is Jesse’s destiny; and his self-absorbed joy is hard for his new shipmates to swallow.
Jesse may be a misfit, but it sometimes seems a miracle that any of the Beta passed the tests that confirmed they were stable enough for a twenty-year deep-space mission. Poppy suffers from chronic depression. Juno is anorexic and short-tempered. Her twin Astrid has swapped the Christianity of her childhood for the fervent faith of the New Creationists. Harry is cruel, unfamiliar with failure or even sickness. And Eliot, engineering genius, has just lost the love of his life.
As the breakdown of onboard relationships outstripped the pace of the journey, I started wondering how they’d survive twenty years trapped in a small tin can together. Would Harry push Jesse out the airlock before Juno smothered Poppy? Would anyone be able to put up with Astrid’s evangelism? How would they cope once the adults aboard began to age and die?
These turned out to be the wrong questions, as the second half of the novel takes a left turn from space exploration to space disaster. The crew must learn to overcome their weaknesses and rivalries if they are to survive, much less reach Terra-Two. Everything will depend on their confidence and training. And, perhaps, on how far they are prepared to go for their dream.
The sudden uptick in pace and drama was a shock (as disaster in deep space should be I suppose), if welcome after all the navel-gazing and conflict. But while I enjoy disaster novels, I found the second half of the novel almost mechanical in the way it used the unfolding drama to resolve the arcs of the Beta. The character development at the climax fell flat for me after the intricate set-up.
There were other issues too. Do You Dream of Terra-Two? is set in a parallel timeline – while the novel (eventually) gives you just enough context for the purposes of the plot, I had lots of unaddressed questions (such as wondering how the UK was funding a national space program on an equal footing with the US, China and Russia). The narrative sometimes lacked clarity or seemed to contradict itself (note: I read a very early ARC). For example: I was never clear when and where Eliot and Ara met. Cai appeared on-board before the Damocles passed Mars (where he was based). When Astrid reflected that they’d be the first out of the solar system it took me a while to click that the Chinese generation ship years ahead of them was so slow they would overtake it that soon.
These are all minor asides for the most part, but the immediate effect of thinking ‘wait, what?’ regularly threw me out of the narrative, as did an unfortunate formatting error that meant my copy had no capital Es available (it took me a long time to realise that Eliot didn’t insist on being called eliot). It’s a shame, as Temi Oh writes lovely prose, with an almost poetic turn of phrase at times, and her characters were interesting even if I didn’t like them much.
In the end, I found Do You Dream of Terra-Two unsatisfying. I think this was partly those expectations: I was more interested in the challenges of colonisation and terraforming than in the characters, and that turned out not to be what the book was about. I wanted to get to Terra-Two and know if Astrid’s visions were true; but the book never reaches the promised planet.
However, I was sufficiently engaged that I would consider re-reading it at some point (although I’ll wait for the final edition to see if it addresses any of the hiccups) – as I think it will reread well with my expectations set more appropriately.
I received an early ARC from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.