Reviews

Fighting to Survive in “Space Station Down”

A review of Ben Bova and Doug Beason's new novel, "Space Station Down."

In Space Station Down, by Ben Bova and Doug Beason, scientist Kimberly Hadid-Robinson is the senior-ranking American aboard the International Space Station (ISS). The most extraordinary thing she expects about her mission is that her ex-husband, former ISS Commander Scott Robinson, will serve as the lead astronaut at NASA mission control, managing communications between the ISS and the ground. This is somewhat awkward; but, Kimberly and Scott are adults and mission-focused professionals. They’ll be fine. Probably.

Meanwhile, a cash-strapped NASA has allowed a Qatari billionaire named Adama Bakhet, to buy his way into the most outlandishly luxurious act of tourism—a nine-day, $60 million dollar stay aboard the ISS. Making Bakhet’s stay comfortable is none of Kimberly’s concern, however. She’s busy conducting an experiment on crystal growth in zero gravity when the Soyuz capsule, transporting him and two cosmonauts, docks with the ISS. She is watching them enter the other side of the station on a monitor when she sees the brutal murder of an astronaut. Kimberly’s scientific mission has been usurped by a terrorist attack against the United States.

A radicalized former cosmonaut and Bakhet, a computer scientist, quickly sever the ISS’s communications with mission control soon after footage of the murder is beamed to Earth through a video feed. NASA has no idea whether Kimberly or any of her station mates are still alive, and Scott, stuck on Earth, is left briefing the president on the attack. With her colleagues reduced to corpses floating in the station, and with no way to leave, Kimberly is on her own. This fast-paced space thriller takes Alien’s tagline, “In space no one can hear you scream,” and runs with it hard.

Six-time Hugo Award-winning author Ben Bova and Nebula Award finalist Doug Beason have joined forces to create a unique cat-and-mouse game involving, among other things: a race to hack into the ISS’s computers; a heroine hiding from murderers in a space station with precious little room; space walks; and the weaponization of space itself. Taking their heroine from fighting to stay alive, to saving her country from a nefarious plot, the authors continuously ratchet up the stakes in this plot-driven thriller.

A unique twist on Kimberly’s space battle is that she’s unarmed. No weapons are allowed on the ISS. Intended to prevent violence from breaking out between crews living in close quarters for months at a time, the weapons ban is also in place to prevent bullets from puncturing the station’s aluminum siding, which would depressurize the station, killing all life aboard. Kimberly knows, however, that one American astronaut has left behind a contraband utility knife that he managed to smuggle aboard the station years ago. Can she find it, and could it possibly be enough?

Conditions on the space station, mission control, and the tools onboard for astronauts are richly drawn as Kimberly MacGyvers her way through obstacle after obstacle. Bova and Beason really did their homework. The many real-life astronaut alumni of the ISS, who wrote glowing blurbs for this novel, are a testament to this fact. That said, it might be hard for terrestrial types to envision the exact layout of the space station and the movements of human bodies in zero gravity. The novel reprints a schematic of the station periodically to assist with the former. Also, the novel benefits from the Boeing Starliner and the SpaceX Dragon, both of which have made headlines for their missions over the last year. The spacecrafts feature prominently in the thriller, lending it another layer of realism.

Bova and Beason use no-frills prose; they show us mostly just the facts. Appropriate for the voice of their narrator, who, even after finding her way out of heart-palpitating panic in dire circumstances, manages to mathematically calculate exactly how slim her chances of surviving the mission are.

If there’s one area that Space Station Down could flesh out a bit more, it’s the relationship between the lone, American astronaut and her ex, Scott. An ex-Navy SEAL, fighter pilot, AND astronaut, Robinson has his fair share of machismo running through his veins. Being in a marriage with a highly accomplished woman proved to be a challenge he couldn’t handle, and Kimberly’s plight on the ISS has him trying every angle he has to rescue her. Between these two exceptionally strong personalities who happen to be ex-lovers, and the existential threat looming in orbit, there was enough emotional gunpower for a glorious combustion. Instead, the story leaves their relationship, the true Chekov’s gun of this story, unfired. Even so, Space Station Down is an imaginative, exciting thriller, and a welcome escape from the times we’re living in now. You won’t get bored, and you might even sweat.

SCIENCE FICTION
Space Station Down
By Ben Bova and Doug Beason
Tor Books
Published August 4, 2020

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