It may seem odd for a hopepunk novel to begin with an Earth rendered lifeless thanks to a combination of war, politics, and climate change. But that’s exactly the point of Dropnauts. The main characters come from lunar colonies that have survived generations on the hope they could someday repopulate Earth. Nor have they been waiting passively. One aspect I enjoyed was the innovative use of technology. How the survivors assisted in the environmental recovery of the Earth, for example. The above is backstory, though, as everything begins with the first group to return to Earth, hence the title.
The novel starts in a pretty grim place with disaster striking practically on the first page. This isn’t my favorite technique because I don’t have time to bond with the characters and so the ones lost are just names. Despite this bias, I absorbed the intended meaning without realizing it until later. They undertake a dangerous mission with no guarantee of success, but the need is great enough to go anyway.
It’s a powerful start, especially when compared to their history of human-driven disaster. The first hazard is environmental, though the clutter humans left behind is part of it. Beginning in this way also raises the question of what other elements they might have miscalculated or forgotten. Their leader is an AI, but far from all knowing or all powerful. The situation offers an opportunity to set up the history and world without dragging.
The characters came alive to me soon after the beginning, in part because of what they’d suffered. The readers are not alone in learning how dangerous their task is. The dropnauts feel more real because of such a simple mental twist. Until they lose some of those they’d trained beside, befriended, and even loved, the dangers are theoretical–mental not gut. Whether they’ll all return from this mission is now answered, and not in a good way.
There’s a large cast (with a key actors list in the beginning and a more complete one at the end), but the book centers on one team. Most of the others are relevant only in how they affect that team’s situation or emotional state. The cast is also diverse both culturally and in gender, with diversity in their preferences as well.
The dynamics within the team have the potential to be a nightmare with ex-lovers, unrequited love, and oblivion. While I won’t tell you how it all turns out, this aspect gives the characters depth. As I go through my notes, I find them peppered with pure reactions like “crap,” “oh, dear,” or “I like this character.” More than anything else, these show how involved I was with the people and their circumstances.
While the focus stays primarily with one of the dropnaut crews, there are several points of view (POV) added as the story unfolds. These, along with the dropnauts, come from a wide variety of perspectives and enrich the story. The AI POVs offer a humanish and alien perspective in one. This vision of AIs felt different from the ones in the first Liminal Sky series. But then, the path to self-awareness is logically a strong influence on development so they shouldn’t be the same.
The story escalates from small scale, though perilous, dangers to system-wide crises that still involve the key players. I saw the possibilities and rejected paths not because they couldn’t work within the story, but because I didn’t want them to. One of the best aspects of this story is how we see the characters work through situations in live, problem-solving sessions. I enjoyed experiencing the process rather than being handed an answer, no matter how well seeded. It’s also another area where the characters’ diverse backgrounds stand out.
The book offers rich descriptions so we can envision what the characters are seeing and experiencing in a tangible way. The mention of remnants from our period grounds the timeline in relation to the real Earth. How the elements are woven into the events is one of the story’s strengths. Rarely is something a throwaway mention.
I had some early issues with the timeline because flashbacks and the present day blended together. But it settled down soon enough, and the information we learn in those flashbacks is relevant. Something else I can’t give specifics about, but how the surprises weren’t all bad ones is a nice touch, especially with the disasters in the beginning. There’s a general sense of excitement and hope as the dropnauts set out for Earth, and despite everything, the dropnauts hold on to that sense of adventure. This is far from a quiet novel. It’s full of not just physical conflicts but mental ones as assumptions are challenged and firm beliefs overturned. This is a different world from the Liminal Sky series, and what they face both on the moon and Earth is unique to those environments. I enjoyed discovering a new (old?) world in this spin-off from Liminal Sky. It’ll be interesting to see what happens next.
There is a lot I want to mention, but I keep having to cut words that give away some of what you’ll experience here. The novel explores the psychology of a broken planet as well as an adventure with romantic entanglements. The text has meat on its bones and surprises to offer along the way. While some parts stray close to stereotypical post-apocalyptic dynamics, unique elements kept me reading past any hiccups. The situations were plausible results of human nature.
Nor can I go without applauding the delightful technological and biotech concepts. The author plays with terraforming techniques I haven’t seen before in fiction, for example. And this technology plays a greater role in the story than just an attempt to restart life on the planet below them.
Dropnauts is a lovely story about times of change and the haunting past. Its key themes explore fanaticism and consequences from many viewpoints. I enjoyed the conception of AIs and the relationships between the characters. This is a grand scale story with a bunch of cultures and ideals coming together in a difficult, but necessary, chaos whether a matter of circumstance or design.