Book review: The Flight of the Aphrodite by S. J. Morden

(courtesy Hachette Australia)

It is generally agreed that every book worth its captivating storytelling novel needs a damn good protagonist, someone who may not be perfect but who is able to drive things forward, get things done and hopefully end up suitably well-changed by the time the narrative draws to a satisfying close.

What every good protagonist needs, or most of them do at least (some are their own worst enemy), is a scarily good antagonist, which is something that The Flight of the Aphrodite by S. J. Morden (Gallowglass) has, and then some.

Rory Forsyth is the kind of antagonist of which legends are made and readers’ hackles are raised to shirt-lifting degrees; he is one of the most horribly arrogant, inhumanly cold, cruelly autocratically-inclined people to ever populate a book, and while you will hate him with every fibre of your being – unless you like narcissistic sociopaths in love with their own self-perceived godlike status then have at it – he is, without question one of the many reasons why this novel sizzles with all kinds of humanistic tension.

The Flight of the Aphrodite is a books that rises and falls – far, far more of the former than the latter thankfully – on the people within, 12 intrepid souls who, with a home planet collapsing, almost literally, under the weight of the effects of climate change in the 2080s, have journeyed to survey Jupiter and its radiation-lashed moons, principally Io, Europe, Gannymede and Callisto.

“He looked at Command. Those who weren’t looking at their screens were staring at the pit, and he could see their eyes more than anything else, shining with colour. The hologram showed a wire model of the Aphrodite in blue, pregnant with a red hexagonal probe the size of what? A large car? A small van? That was the usual metric. They had hauled it, and three identical probes, halfway across the Solar System, and if they didn’t work – if they underperformed in a way that displeased Forsyth – then there’d be a lot of soul-searching and angry accusations in the next few hours.” (P. 15)

It’s supposed, of course, to be a routine three-year mission of scientific exploration but when has something that simple in intent ever found equally uncomplicated realisation, especially in space where darkness and horror seem to lurk in even more profuse abundance than wonder and sublimely astronomic joy.

The Flight of the Aphrodite is yet another tale set in the far reaches of our solar system where monsters lurk, all of whom, interestingly enough, are in demonstrably human form; some are malignant such as Forsyth and some simply fallibly broken or regretfully uncertain such as the captain Luca Mariucci, one-time hero of Earth – he, along with others, prevented an asteroid from destroying it – but all of whom are instrumental to the fate of a mission that does not end up going even remotely as planned.

Quite why that is is best left to the reading but suffice to say that about the same time that the ship and crew begin to degrade in slowly horrifying fashion, they pick up strange radio signals going from moon-to-moon, a discovery that is either greeted with wonder, terror or outright rejection that we might not be alone in the universe.

For the most part, you’d think that finding radio signals where radiation-saturated circumstances should make them all but impossible, would be a thing of celebratory joy but instead it leads to further fracturing of the group of hand-picked flight crew and researchers all of whom have some very big decisions to make.

(courtesy Hachette Australia)

What makes The Flight of the Aphrodite such an arrestingly intense and immersive read is that the narrative is driven almost solely by the actions of the team themselves.

It is, in essence, a story of raw humanity pushed to its limits, and how, Forysth aside who would be manically odious no matter what universe he inhabited, even the best-intentioned of people, supposedly given over to the thrill and anticipation of scientific discovery can find themselves enmeshed in their own foibles and weighed almost fatally down by ever-heavier feet of clay.

As a study of group think, manipulation and daring to stand against prevailing opinion, especially when it could doom everyone is concerned, The Flight of the Aphrodite is a masterfully-engaging read.

It takes us not only deep into the mysteries of the Jovian system, which look like they were populated long ago by a race that might’ve made it as far as Earth – when you come across what the discoveries are, you will find yourself wondering just how expansive a find it is and just how far its consequences spread – but deep into the hearts, souls and minds of 12 very different people who find themselves coming apart at the seams in ways of which they never previously conceived.

It’s a harrowing journey but ultimately an illuminating one because it reveals much about what makes us human and how easily the very best parts of us can succumb to the very worst, especially when they are put under diabolically intense pressure.

“It wasn’t such a great step between being willing to die for something, and being willing to kill for it. And these three were fanatics, Absolute fanatics, Someone had to go, clearly, but would those left behind accept the testimony of that one? Or would they automatically see their statements as tainted, those of an unbeliever?” (P. 205)

While the central question at hand remains are we alone in the universe, and if not, what the hell do we do about it, the driving force of The Flight of the Aphrodite is always how each of the characters, particularly key ones such as Forsyth, Mairucci and the doctor who is about the only one who comes through unscathed (though, in a poignantly-revealed way, not completely), grapple with such a mind-blowing idea.

It’s fascinating, in fact, to chart the reactions on a sliding scale with people veering from venomous rejection (Forysth) to fervent belief (which mutates to a dangerously religious extremism) and everywhere in-between; if you ever thought humanity would unity in unity and wonder at such a discovery, think again – we are as fractured out in space, even in the face of a wondrously momentous discovery as we are on our blighted home planet and the end result is about as devilishly dark as you might imagine.

While The Flight of the Aphrodite does have a neat and tidy ending of sorts, it also does not, reflecting, rather cleverly and movingly, the fact that being human is rarely experienced as a tie-a-neat-red-bow-around-things deal.

It is, in fact, gloriously, fearfully messy, as apt to rise to marvel as it is to descend into vitriol, and Morden explores this arresting truthfulness, celebrating the best and the worst of us as we come across a discovery that changes everything we know about life in the universe, delivering a startlingly good journey into our collective psyche that will leave you proud and horrified in equal measure, wondering all the time how’d you’d react if you found evidence that we are not, and likely have never been, alone.

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