The Last Astronaut by David Wellington

A huge alien object has entered the solar system and is now poised above the Earth. It has made no attempt to communicate.

Out of time and options, NASA turns to its last living astronaut – Commander Sally Jansen, who must lead a team of raw recruits on a mission to make First Contact.

But as the object reveals its secrets, Jansen and her crew find themselves in a desperate struggle for survival – against the cold vacuum of space, and something far, far worse . . .

I’ve a bit of a soft spot for hard sci-fi stories. The kind where the characters have to rely on good, old-fashioned science and hack-job engineering to get out of a jam. I thought that The Last Astronaut would be such a book, and it was… to an extent.

To boil the book down to its premise, The Last Astronaut is a story about an alien object that is on course to enter Earth’s atmosphere. NASA’s space exploration division has long since been shut down after a few fatal and high-profile accidents, and private companies have stepped in to fill that niche. The appearance of this object encourages NASA to send one last mission — involving the last-living astronaut, Sally Jansen — to make first contact.

While there were several hard SF aspects, and the background and aesthetics of the first half of the book give the impression that it’s going to be a hard SF story, I found that by the end it leaned far more heavily to the “Horror” side of things. It was an interesting genre mix that I’d never experienced before, and it intrigued me, but there were things that did and didn’t work for me.

One of the dangers with mixing genres is that a book can seem like it has an identity crisis. If the genres don’t mix well, or if the book jumps back and forth between them, it can feel a little messy.

The Last Astronaut has a mild case of this problem, in my opinion. The book is very readable, and held my attention over the two days that I read it. There are a few different POVs, and the narrative is interspersed with quotes from characters “looking back” at the events of the book. I loved these little touches, and they really helped to immerse me in the world of the story.

But at some point, I became aware that the story was quite drastically changing. You can almost cut the book in half and say, “Okay, this first 50% is hard SF, and this last 50% is Horror.” I liked both parts individually (though Horror isn’t usually my wheelhouse), but the transition was a bit… jarring.

I imagine that this was probably intentional on some level. It really highlights the alien nature of… well, the alien, and it helps to communicate the sense of unease that Jansen and her crew are feeling throughout their journey and attempted contact.

And on that note, atmosphere is something that this book does really well. There’s quite a lot of description, and that serves to make you feel how stressed-out and on-edge the characters are. Unfortunately, I wasn’t really able to connect with the characters themselves. While I was invested in the story to some level, the characters rarely felt like real people to me. Perhaps this just wasn’t the right book for me.

If you enjoy reading creepy, atmospheric horror stories, and have an interest in space or SF books, then I’d imagine you’d love it.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for a fair and honest review. Thanks to Orbit Books for the review copy!

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