The Phoenix is eleven years into its journey to Planet X, a planet deemed habitable for human life. A bomb goes off, killing three members of the crew, including its captain. Asuka is the lone surviving witness, and in some folks’ eyes, the prime suspect. She was the last picked for the 80 person mission, assigned as an alternative. She has no special skills that apply to the mission, but she acts as a filler, an extra hand. Assigned as the detective, she must figure out who planted the bomb and why, so The Phoenix can continue its mission with its crew still intact. They only have a few days to correct their course or be lost in space forever. Will Asuka solve the mystery before the loyalties of the crew unravel?
I have mixed feelings about The Deep Sky, by Yume Kitasei. I can’t reconcile the technical aspects of the book with some of the emotions I was going through while reading. The book has a very strong set up, as it flits between the past and the present lives of the women who would be Humanity’s last hope to survive the climate crisis. Stakes are introduced quickly, giving the pace a kickstart that skips early information dumps. Characters have distinct voices, so it was easy to distinguish who was speaking during extended back and forth conversations. But around the halfway point in the story, I started to feel a drag in the plot. The characters didn’t feel any more fleshed out than they had been, and the worldbuilding started to wear thin. I didn’t get bored, but I did start to feel frustrated. I plan to touch on my feelings about the story, and while I won’t spoil plot points, I will be in spoiler adjacent territory. I’ll give another warning when I get closer to that territory. So let’s talk about it.
The plot of The Deep Sky is fairly straightforward. It’s a mystery in a locked room aboard a generation ship. The action starts immediately, and Asuka is recruited to figure it all out. Suspicions rise as the situation on Earth deteriorates and the crew is running out of time. Relationships are pulled taut as the crew tries to reorient the ship while Asuka tries to find the terrorist on board. Throw in flashbacks to the character’s lives as children training for the mission, and there is a clever set up to dig into motivations, capabilities and internal anxieties. It’s a well organized set up for mystery that allows the author to build up the world and focus on the “why” of the mission to Planet X.
The execution started to fall apart for me when the characters and story started to spin their wheels a little bit. Part of the problem, this is a personal one, is that the book has the trappings of a young adolescent story that deals with very adult subject matters, while barely giving them attention. For instance, most of the characters are in their early twenties, and we see them grow from an even earlier age of ten or so years old, and some of the conflicts felt superficial. They have the right to be superficial given the circumstances, but sometimes it doesn’t feel purposeful. It wasn’t hormones or the total lack of a childhood or the extreme traumas they were forced through as part of their training, they were just mean girls being mean to each other. And that loses me because while I recognize that as a very human thing at those ages, it felt like an easy out for lack of communication when it came to the story itself. This got in the way of the mystery as the investigation stalled due to lack of communication between characters. I wasn’t particularly engrossed in it already, seeing as the crew had huge fish to fry, but it made me care even less about the who or the why. I was mostly concerned with the story from the perspective of how people react in a state of environmental collapse, so that’s another personal disconnect.
A quick speed run of encounters I had with the book. Sometimes the dialogue felt too functional, without a hint of it being trained into the characters. In the flashbacks, the children acted like semi-formed adults in eleven year old bodies, which was weird. Occasionally, chapters ended with a revelation, internal or external, that felt like an “achievement unlocked” icon was appearing in the top corner. I think this was mostly due to the internal narration of Asuka, but it was very hard to ignore on my end. There was an underexplored mini-plot involving the crew being made up of folks able to give birth, and it being a part of the mission to give births. I wish there was more discussion about this because it felt revelatory, but also swept under the rug to avoid the mess. The two main radical groups felt even keeled, one being a right wing nationalist group, the other being a woowoo environmental group prone to child abuse conspiracies that Asuka’s mom was a part of. They felt equated in a weird way, and only seemed to serve as a character divide, not a part of world building or themes. And then the whole mission was created by a trillionaire, who had countries compete for slots, and that was just completely unexplored. I don’t necessarily need a condemnation of the means, but more engagement with it would have been nice.
But I do think Kitasei did a fine job, even if it was blunt, incorporating virtual reality as a theme within the story, especially as it pertains to how one engages with the world and the connections we form with those around us. Kitasei also digs a bit into national identity and who qualifies for what slots based on need and want. It played into Asuka’s identity really well, especially with her anxiety about being competent for the mission. She also plays with the children’s training as inflicting trauma. While the book doesn’t make a specific point about it, does seem to point it out as an avenue for future exploration.
Despite all that, I found a weirdly deep connection with aspects of this book. Kitasei tapped into something that I have yet to really feel within a book that confronts the ecological crisis unfolding in front of our eyes. She specifically focuses on the kids and the generations who are burdened with the horrifying future ahead, the lack of viable solutions available to them and the dead structures they are forced to navigate in order to “save humanity.” These children are born in some ways with a purpose, to live in a terrible time while giving hope to a beleaguered human species that has spun itself out. Dreams of nations are piled into a billionaire’s project, seats on the ship are jockeyed and lobbied for. Children are chosen by their nations based on heritage, forced to compete with other children that hail from the same country who may or may not be more skilled than them. The anxiety of the situation and the pressure to perform is captured, if not wonderfully, then dutifully. It made me feel for these kids.
Mix that together with Asuka being just a normal girl who didn’t really have any skills or goals in life beyond honoring her dead brother I got the distinct flavor of “I’m here to do what I can to help,” and the helplessness and desire to do good that comes with it. This feeling ran through the whole story. Every problem that arose, every conflict between characters resonated with this underlying anxiety. Asuka being assigned to the mission as an “alt,” a crew member with no special training beyond being a swiss army person, only amplified that feeling of having a purpose without definition.
In the end, I really wanted to like The Deep Sky. Kitasei opens a new avenue of feeling when it relates to envisioning the collapse and the people who have to deal with it. It’s unfortunate that it’s built to a dead end, in my opinion, with several branching exits that lead down more story focused paths and other similar dead ends. I want there to be more stories like this that face the oncoming problems with grief, anxiety and dread, while giving the crisis its proper weight. I want there to be messy conversations about resource allocation where no easy answers exist and people will die because of inaction or even decision making. I’m not saying Kitasei had to write that story, but she clearly has a great starting point for it. The Deep Sky is for those who want to confront that anxiety, see it play out and feel a desire to reconcile that lack of catharsis. It might be good too if you like a good mystery with a science fiction setting that spends time with that setting in interesting ways.
Rating: The Deep Sky – 6.0/10
An ARC of this book was provided to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The thoughts on this book are my own.