Bethany House, 2009
I had never heard of Robin Parish prior to reading the review blurb for Offworld in Publisher’s Weekly. The idea behind the novel, the first astronauts to visit Mars return home only to find Earth abandoned, all people and animals having suddenly disappeared, sounded intriguing. Bethany House, for those that don’t know, is indeed a publisher of Christian fiction not necessarily known for its stirring sci-fi/fantasy catalog and faith certainly colors both the plot and characters of Parish’s book to a certain degree. In truth the importance of faith, the belief of the characters that they are being driven by something larger than themselves as well as their trust and reliance on one another, lends a certain strength to the characters and events in the novel. On the other hand certain elements of faith and spirituality clash slightly with the novel’s science fiction roots and might frustrate some readers. However, in Offworld, Parish has managed to craft an entertaining and engaging story that follows a group of likable characters on an exciting and mysterious journey.
Chris Burke, the commander of the Mars mission, and his crew are a likable bunch that fill very specific roles both in terms of personality and skills. At the same time their characterization is only sort of a surface feature and as events progress, and the characters are faces with trying situations, each reveals hidden depths and secrets that turn what could be considered cliche into something more well rounded though still based on specific archetypes. In Chris we have the stoic leader, Terry is the lovable (and occasionally annoying) rascal, Trish is the strong woman with secrets and hidden vulnerability, and Owen is the resourceful level-headed thinker. These roles are well established from the start and expounded upon and examined as the novel progresses. The addition of a fifth character, Mae, is really what brings the cast together in my opinion. The “fly in the ointment” as she is frequently referred to serves as catalyst in many ways not only for the novel’s plot but revealing important aspects of characters in how they react to her presence. She serves as a mean to reinforce their aforementioned roles and as light for the author to shine in the mored shadowed corners of his characters’ personalities. Mae’s predilication towards a slang-filled, clipped speech pattern and sort-of world-weary wisdom gives her a memorable folksy charm and her unique appearance and pack-rat habits make her the easiest character to visualize.
The novel, in addition to an intriguing mystery, has a certain introspective quality to the proceedings that cause our characters to question both themselves and the reality that they have come to accept. The emotional and physical limits of the characters are constantly tested by what appears to be fate; though the truth of that assumption is later put to test. At the same time Mae through small interactions with each character slowly brings out aspects of each individual that were hidden either from other characters or from themselves. While the mystery of the missing population drives the action of the novel it is Mae who in essence drives the spiritual journey of the characters. While Christianity itself isn’t talked about explicitly, and while the novel has at least some grounding in science, it is definately a novel that sticks to idea of a God or other supreme being that shapes/guides events. In fact it is a fact central to novel and something that the novel even plays with a bit towards the end.
While I certainly enjoyed the character interaction of the novel Offworld is no slouch when it comes to action. From the opening dream sequence of Chris’ walk on the martian surface and the introduction to the mystery of 18 hours of missing time, to the crashlanding in Florida, to the raging storm that threatens to stop our heroes, and finally to the lengthy action-packed final thrid of the novel the novel is brimming with excitement that compliments the slower character moments quite nicely. It is unfortunate then the impact of the latter portion of the book is significantly reduced by rather large and cumbersome infodump that reveals the fate of humanity. Don’t get me wrong, the explanation is fascinating and clever, but it was handled a bit clumsily and robs the novel’s conclusion of what could have been something fantastic.
I’m willing to say that the journey getting to the novel’s end is worth it despite the somewhot boggled ending. The spiritual overtones of the novel are never quite overt and never really intrude on the story. The general concept of Offworld is genuinely interesting and reminded me, at least initially, of Stephen King’s novella The Langoliers; there is something genuinely creepy about once populated places being suddenly empty. I enjoyed the novel’s tandem mysteries (the missing people and Chris’ missing time) and finding out how the two were connected was a fun process; even if the final revelation falls a bit flat. Regardless, if you’re in the mood for something a bit different from an author who is a relative newcomer to the sci-fi scene I recommend giving Offworld a shot.