Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Microreview [Book]: Do You Dream of Terra-Two? by Temi Oh

A debut that, despite its flaws, delivers highly accomplished psychological drama on a teen-led mission to a second Earth

Design by Matthew Johnson
It's the UK, 2012. Summer is coming, the Olympic spirit is setting in, and in London, six teenagers are about to join a 10-person mission to a planet in a nearby system, which humans have discovered is almost a mirror of our own world. The UK Space Agency, which has held its own against the cold war superpowers even as the USA makes it to the moon and the Russians are the first to land on Mars, is eager to be the first onto the planet. The six crew members chosen to start colonising Terra-Two have been training at an intensive space academy for years, and are finally ready to take their place on this twenty-three year mission into the unknown. That is, until things start to unravel on their very last day on earth, throwing the entire mission and the capacity of the crew to undertake it into doubt.

So opens debut YA science fiction novel from Temi Oh, a claustrophobic not-quite-generation-ship story which quickly turns into a psychological meditation on its small cast of characters. The narrative is told from the perspective of each of the kids of the "Beta" crew, including Jesse Solloway, a last-minute replacement selected from their backup team, whose sudden inclusion in the final lineup won't be a surprise to readers given that his point of view is literally in the first section (though I'll leave the exact circumstances of his promotion a mystery). Aside from Jesse, there's also golden-boy alpha male Harry; artistic, passionate Ara; awkward mechanics expert Eliot; underprivileged hyperpolyglot Poppy; and Astrid and Juno, twins with very different outlooks on the mission and their places within it. There's a complement of adults too, who mostly fall along a spectrum of being kind but curmugeonly, but the focus is very much on the youth contingent of the mission and the kids' specific problems - there's definitely a sense that these are young people who haven't quite internalised the fact that the "teachers" have their own lives and struggles, even if they intellectually know about the challenges their seniors must face.

By opening the action around the Terra-Two mission, and the tiny complement of students who get onto it from the academic pressure cooker of Dalton academy, Oh sets up an interesting moment to start the story. By this point, all of the characters have spent years in each others' company to some extent, and while some clearly know each other better than others - there's a notable divide between Jesse and the crew who were originally selected - we are still reading about relationships that have a great deal of baggage behind them, and the whole that's handled quite well. At the same time, setting the action at the start of the crew's 23-year journey makes the distance to the planet insurmountable. I suspect it's no accident that the title frames Terra-two as a "dream": a planet that will somehow provide all the answers to an overcrowded, dying earth, packed with natural beauty and already habitable for humans, somehow becoming more and more unreal with every detail we learn that conforms to the way things are on Earth. The fact that this mission seems so dreamlike, and the protagonists feel so underequipped, may be frustrating for readers seeking a more Seveneves-esque tale of human ingenuity in the face of interstellar adversity, but that's sort of the point: there's a subtle but increasingly clear message that we are supposed to question the design and realism of this mission, even while the teenagers themselves are fixated on their own destinies and, more practically, surviving long enough to arrive with them.

At the heart of Do You Dream of Terra-Two is an interrogation of a point I rarely see made so well: what makes someone gifted, or a leader? All of the teenagers selected for the mission are indisputably talented and driven, and have been placed in a school environment which is clearly intended as its own test of their commitment and capabilities, with very little introspection offered or encouraged about what this pressure actually qualifies them to do. The selection of Harry, the ship's most privileged white male, as not only the pilot-in-training but also future commander (jobs which it is assumed are automatically linked) is the most overt result of that system, but the attempts by Juno, Astrid and even Jesse to articulate their own aspirations for the future, and test the assumption that they are best placed to lead others into it, are equally interesting. At no point does Oh allow us to forget we are watching barely-adults figure themselves out, and much of the tension comes from watching them do so on a spaceship where there is literally no escape from each other or their precarious situation. That it does so - and lets its characters make horrible choices and unforgivable mistakes without ever crossing the line into being unlikeable characters (with one possible exception) - is a testament to how well crafted the psychosocial elements of this text are.

Although I found much of Do You Dream of Terra-Two successful, there were still parts that didn't work as well. Although this isn't a short book, the inclusion of so many point of view characters, all with multiple problems and plot strands, means that some elements do fall by the wayside. This might also be intentional: for example, one character has an eating disorder that is, in hindsight, pretty well signposted but never "developed". The fact that readers are likely to forget about it in between "wait, that doesn't sound healthy" cues reflects how the weight of stress on all the characters prevents them from noticing these things about each other. If that is what's going on, though, it's subtle to the point of being frustrating, at least from a plot perspective. The more overt mystical elements in the text - like Astrid's prophetic dreams, or the visions Eliot has of a former classmate - also struggle to find purchase in amongst everything else that's going on.

More disappointingly, the mystic lens given to Terra-Two also seems to prevent any discussion of the planet, or of the journey the crew are undertaking, from a colonial perspective. All of the Beta crew - who are equally split between white and PoC members (for the record, they all present as cis and heterosexual, and no disabilities beyond mental health issues are ever pointed out... sigh) - project blank canvas visions onto Terra-Two, but at no point is the UKSA's "Off-World Colonization" project linked to the country's colonial past and its legacy. It's particularly noticeable that neither Astrid and Juno, who are Black Kenyan and had a very international upbringing, make the link between their roles on a prestigious British mission (side note: it turns out, late in the book, that their father is a missionary, which is a whoooole other situation in itself), and the assumptions they are now making about taking "ownership" of Terra-Two when they arrive. Instead, when the planet's future isn't being seen through the lens of selfish teenage aspirations, it's effectively treated as a new "frontier", in which the UK needs to turn up and plant its flag first before all the other countries arrive and claim their own territory. I accept that not all books can be all things, but in a book that is so open in other ways about drawing on contemporary British identity and all its contradictions, the lack of any interrogation on this point is jarring.

Despite its problems, Do You Dream of Terra-Two is a book with plenty to recommend it to the right audience - though its preoccupation is far more on the thoughts and development of its young protagonists than the end goal of the trip they are on, that psychological element is handled with immense skill, and for a debut author this definitely sets Temi Oh up as someone to watch. There may not be any more story to tell when it comes to the journey of the Damocles, but I'm definitely interested in more smart, relateable and subtle fiction in whatever future worlds - tangible or otherwise - the author chooses to visit in future.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 subtle, multi-layered psychological drama that really capitalises on the situation and challenges the characters face.

Penalties: -1 Hard to keep track of the many characters' constantly multiplying emotional problems; -1 story about a crew of British people on a colonisation mission that makes no reference to colonial legacies on Terra One

Final Score: 6/10

POSTED BY: Adri is a semi-aquatic migratory mammal most often found in the UK. She has many opinions about SFF books, and is also partial to gaming, baking, interacting with dogs, and Asian-style karaoke. Find her on Twitter at @adrijjy.