We as a species love space. We love stories about breaking the fragile bounds of Earth and venturing forth to see what lies in the lonely dark beyond. We’re fascinated with the idea of sitting in a tin can, far above the world. And we love imagining all the places and things the people who do go to the stars will discover.
But the mindset required for a person to leave behind everything they have ever known—the entire planet—for the unknown is a fascinating idea all on its own, and that’s one that Temi Oh explores in Do You Dream of Terra-Two. But put a half-dozen of young adults in a spaceship for a twenty-three-year trip, pepper in some strong personalities and a hefty glug of grief, and you’ve got a recipe if not for disaster, something close to it.
We meet our pioneers as they are selected out of fifty finalists for this lifetime mission to be the first on the habitable planet Terra-Two: Harry, commander-in-training; Poppy, a hyper-polyglot; Eliot, an engineer; twins Juno and Astrid; and botanist Ara. We also meet Jesse, who just failed to make the cut to be the first sent to Terra-Two. But when Ara jumps off a bridge and into the Thames hours before launch, Jesse is back on the roster. Aboard ship, these six young adults and four seasoned astronauts settle in for a two-decade voyage. But tempers quickly start to flare; friendships are made and broken. And the question of who belongs on the ship and who doesn’t encompasses everything—except when everything starts going horribly wrong.
One of the things I really love about this book is Oh’s resistance to convention. Do You Dream of Terra-Two has all the potential trappings of a whole bunch of tropes but she doesn’t quite commit to any of them. Jesse is a late addition to the crew, but we don’t follow him around as the new person introduced to a complex new world because until he failed to make the cut this was his world and now he’s trying to reassert his place in it–and besides, everyone’s new on the ship, anyway. Harry has the makings of a leader who enjoys his power a little too much, but Oh doesn’t let him stray far into villainous territory, or stay there for long. Juno is reluctant and Astrid is a dreamer (the one who keeps peddling variations of the title) but they are both appropriately mercurial for the stage of life and the conditions they’re in. There are budding romances that don’t ever go quite where you expect. There are selfish impulses that put a wrinkle in things, and lofty ideals that end up being too delicate for the world they’re building, but no easy answers that come along with the questions those things raise.
Everyone, in fact, is allowed their nuance, their grab-bag of virtues and vices, making this a nice character-driven study in a genre that until recently was dismissed (however unfairly) as being only populated with space ships and explosions. There are spaceships in Do You Dream of Terra-Two, and explosions, and all occur in a situation in which no character has much autonomy at all. Still, this feels as character-driven as any navel-gazing piece of literature, and the questions it raises about morality and existence linger long after you close the book.
But what sticks more than the questions or the characters is the language. Oh has lovingly rendered melancholy and excitement both into vivid prose. As one character second-guesses her choice to join the mission we read:
“[She] realized that she had been mistaken. Realized that, in the vast solar system, her planet was the greatest sight to see. Impossible not to marvel at it. To tremble in its light. Whorls of clouds, larger than mountains but delicate as breath, ivory vapor trails, so much dark sea. When she finally beheld it, with her own eyes, and not through satellite images or computer reconstructions, she began to cry. She felt like Lot’s wife as she gazed at the deserts and the sea. Ripples in the sand dunes appeared as black striations against the golden ground. The coastlines were a brilliant chrome blue and the mountain ranges were like scars on the Earth. [She] felt it for the first time—a scintilla of doubt. Her own sickness, homesickness.”
I wanted to plunge my hands into Oh’s prose and let it all roll over me like a wave. Do You Dream of Terra Two is a long book, over 500 pages, but the language and the characters help it feel far shorter. I initially planned on breaking up my reading of it over two or three days. Instead, I moved about the house, drifting from bed to couch to floor to table, blowing past my self-imposed page limit and ignoring the dishes in the sink until I finished the book five or so hours later. And unlike some of the characters in the pages I blew through, I didn’t regret my choice at all.