I would not say that The Last Astronaut by David Wellington is a bad book. It just didn’t quite hit the marks that it set out to hit. The story itself was okay on its own; it did not feel entirely new to me, but it was not stale either. The possibility of extraterrestrial life visiting our solar system can be a fun way to uncover aspects of humanity left unexplored in other genres. The secrecy around the discovery in The Last Astronaut made the race to answer the question of ‘who are they and what are they doing here’ more personal than most first contact stories I have read. The general structure of the book’s beginning felt like I was going to dive into some characters who carried demons. I expected that this unknown entity was going to exploit this baggage, shining a light on the characters’ faults as they plunged deeper into the darkness of space. My eyes were open for whatever curveballs the author was ready to throw at me. Unfortunately, Wellington’s strange choice to frame the narrative as a documentary paired with his unremarkable writing softened the emotional punch foreshadowed for the characters.
The Last Astronaut takes place fifty years in the future after a failed manned mission to Mars. The captain, Sally Jansen, had to make a life or death decision and sacrificed a crew member for the rest of the group. Afterwards, NASA was defunded to near non-existence. Fifteen years later, an object is spotted slowing down as it enters the solar system, and with very few people who know about it, and even fewer astronauts remaining, Jansen is called in to lead a crew of inexperienced people to a presumed alien ship. Their mission is to make contact and find out what they might be doing here, and whether or not they could be considered a threat.
After the first chapter, Wellington tells the audience that the text that follows is a revised edition of the report he initially penned. This was not merely a statement of the facts, but an inspection of the characters’ mental and emotional states as they explored this alien artifact. The documentarian flair was unexpected and a little jarring, as it tells the reader exactly what to expect instead of letting the story tell itself. I did not pay too much attention to this stylistic choice at first because it felt like an afterthought. By the time the third documentary-style quote from a character appeared, I was already bored with it. It was not consistent enough to add any real tone to the story, and the weird pacing interrupted the natural flow. These little snippets offered little new information, and tended to just hang there, like the guy at the party who pushes his way into a discussion by repeating what someone just said. I was mostly able to ignore these asides, but as they continued to show up, it became a problem for me.
The whole book suffered from this mismanagement of tone. It felt like it was written to be a sci-fi blockbuster movie. The text lacked a real sense of tension, almost as if Wellington was relying on the reader to feel the wonder or fear of entering an alien spacecraft without experiencing it through the characters. There were moments where the author would dive into a description and relish in it, but there were no subtle reminders of the atmosphere or the character’s disposition. I did not even realize this was supposed to be a horror story until about sixty percent of the way through the book. However, the horror elements of the narrative were more to do with the plot than the tone or general ambience. It wasn’t until the crew was deep inside the alien ship that I realized that most of the scenes inside the alien craft were supposed to be set in the dark. This took place long after the crew realized they might be trapped and resources were limited. It was so jarring I flipped backwards through the pages to find descriptions of the dark setting and found little. Instead, Wellington preferred to describe everything that was happening- regardless of a character’s ability to see it- and then wait for you to remind yourself that it’s actually quite dark and scary. It was frustrating to say the least.
The characters were fine. They were not nearly as cardboard as others I have read, but they did not quite hit the level of depth I think Wellington was aiming for. If this was meant to be a journey into the darkness of space and the madness that comes from encountering an alien entity, there was a lot left to be desired. The character’s actions and choices often felt in service to the plot as if their arcs were already predetermined. The ‘darker’ qualities to the characters were amplified immediately, leading them to feel necessary to the plot and artificial. It kicked the story into overdrive, but at the cost of growth or underlying tension. It felt like Wellington was racing to the finish, wanting to reveal the nature of the alien rather than investigate the people involved, which seemed at odds with his initial framing. Little effort was spent in trying to convince the reader of the struggle within the various characters and their conflicting goals as they became more aware of the aliens’ goals.
The overall mystery of the ship and the increasing madness of the crew are good foundations, but they just didn’t feel fully fleshed out. Throughout the book, the only thing that compelled me to keep going was to find out the truth of the alien ship, not how the characters were affected. The retrospective framing was also distracting in a way that removed any sort of horror. It foreshadowed a nice conclusion, dissipating any tension that could be built. All of the emotional impact had to be supplied by the reader, never by the writing itself. If it had been a movie, it would have been an enjoyable schlock sci-fi horror flick. Instead, the book feels lackluster and in service only to itself.
Rating: The Last Astronaut – 5.0/10