There have been enough generation ship stories by now that readers are accustomed to humanity’s chance for the future falling into two categories: either the most intelligent, highly trained, mentally and emotionally resilient platonic ideal of an astronaut and future planet settler; or an every(wo)man who stumbles their way into the mission yet wins everyone over with their sheer relatability and unexpected insights. But what if you were among the cream of the crop… but fell just short of being the very best Earth had to offer?
On the Phoenix, a generation ship ten years into its mission carrying eighty crew members to Planet X, Asuka Hoshino-Silva is an Alt—the mission’s alternate, not hand-picked for any specific job but good enough that she can do in a pinch. Representing Japan despite feeling more connected to the United States based on her childhood spent in climate refugee camps, Asuka is an immediately compelling heroine because of the demanding standards to which she holds herself and her belief that she has already fallen short. When a bomb damages the Phoenix, killing three promising crew members but sparing Asuka, it makes her simultaneously the top suspect and the only one who can solve the mystery of who might be sabotaging EvenStar’s mission, in Yume Kitasei’s absorbing debut sci-fi thriller.
But while it’s a physical bomb that goes off, the Phoenix is a fascinating emotional powder keg before anyone flips a switch. Kitasei layers in a decade of thorny history among the diverse and talented crew—not a cis man among them, per mission protocol—who were selected by their respective home countries then thrown into a boarding school-slash-training academy while Earth was being consumed by wildfires and tsunamis around them. The flashbacks to their competitive adolescence lay the groundwork for the present intrigue, including why Asuka isn’t talking to her former best friend Ruth anymore, why she hasn’t read any of her mother’s letters, or how she wound up in her thankless role playing floater to her peers after they all woke up from a decade in stasis.
It also fills in the most captivating aspect of the worldbuilding, which is the DAR, or Digitally Augmented Reality. Not so far off from Google Glass and other VR headsets, the DAR is introduced during the girls’ adolescence and has about the same impact as the Internet did on Millennials who hazily remember the time before—that is, it’s equally likely to expand their universes as to contract them. To wit: Every EvenStar crew member gets a shiny implant (upgraded from the clunky headsets back home) and free rein to customize it to their heart’s content. Even Asuka, whose family was gutted by a DAR-related tragedy, cannot resist the opportunity to make the Phoenix a little less claustrophobic by being able to revisit special places she had to leave behind.
That means that each crew member is constantly moving through the ship in their own uniquely-skinned world. When Asuka’s DAR starts glitching post-explosion, she discovers that physical contact with another person will allow her to see through their eyes, or rather their DAR—train stations and undersea kingdoms and fantasy realms. It’s a brilliant way to explore this notion of even the closest colleagues hiding in their own worlds, and the knowledge that you can sleep, breathe, and eat next to someone for years without knowing what’s really going on in their head.
It’s also an imaginative take on the typical detective-questioning-suspects story beats, as each person reveals far more than they say through what their subconscious conjures up. Not to mention that the Phoenix has veered far enough off-course that they risk running out of fuel reserves long before they reach Planet X. So while Asuka has added Private Eye to her list of Alt duties, she must also pitch in on the kind of scenario their EvenStar Academy training never practiced.
And they do all this while pregnant. EvenStar’s mission parameters require each crew member (including nonbinary people and trans men) to carry as many pregnancies as they can over the next decade, regardless of assigned role on the station. This makes for wonderful texture in already high-pressure scenes, where the chief engineer trying to steer them back on-course might suddenly vomit from morning sickness, or the acting captain has to pause in the middle of a stirring speech to wince and rub at swollen joints, since she’s eight months pregnant with twins. Their condition never stops them from doing the important work, but it also makes it a hell of a lot harder.
That’s what makes Asuka stand out even more. She’s already been inseminated more than once since the start of the mission, with no luck, and has begun to fear that her fertility is not up to snuff. (The real misfortune being that despite all the tests EvenStar did into supposed health and egg reserves, there was no way to really know how these women’s bodies would react until they were on the mission.) Interestingly, despite Asuka and her core group of allies—Ruth, her new girlfriend Lala, acting captain Ying Yue—utilizing the currently-empty Nursery for key confabs, there’s never any talk of who will be raising these children once they’re born, or how the Phoenix crew will shift into a different sort of village as each irreplaceable crew member must return to her job full-time. A telling omission that speaks volumes about the chasm between intention and reality of this and other missions to propagate the human race somewhere other than terra firma.
The dynamics among these quasi-sisters, as well as the pressure on some idealized fertility and babymaking cycle, brings to mind the fierce Sparrows at the heart of Emily Tesh’s Some Desperate Glory. But just like on Gaia Station, the EvenStar mission is built on its own problematic foundation and ingrained biases. Kitasei makes even the most fleeting characters three-dimensional, which includes not shying away from the racist attitudes and nasty competitive streaks they picked up from their respective cultures planet-side. Even if one of the deceased is ruled out as a suicide bomber, the fact that she had a tattoo for the far-right MAC (or Militia for the American Constitution) marks her as a saboteur of sorts when it comes to humanity working together to find a new home.
The flashbacks to Asuka’s mother getting drawn into environmental activism cult Save Mother Earth will resonate with those who have seen parents subsumed by QAnon, especially as SME hunts for supposed patterns and messages from the universe that EvenStar founder, DAR inventor, and trillionaire Linda Trembling is somehow malevolent. Yet despite the comparisons, it’s even more wrenching because ostensibly, an activist group to save the planet should be the right idea. Asuka and her mother want the same thing—a future for humanity—but are hopelessly at cross-purposes in trying to achieve the goal from their respective spots.
Theirs is the beating heart at the core of the story, even as the Phoenix crew has to figure out how to put aside their petty bullshit and save themselves. By the time Asuka, in full detective mode, has narrowed down the suspects according to motive, means, and opportunity, it becomes somewhat clear who the saboteur is. But because you’ve grown to care about these young pioneers, and because their survival relies on operating in a constant state of trust-fall, the emotional fallout is still destabilizing.
The Deep Sky is just really readable and engaging. Kitasei has put so much thought and heart into this fresh take on the generation ship, and on the dilemma between abandoning Earth and prolonging humanity. I can’t wait to see what her mind sparks to next.
The Deep Sky is published by Flatiron Books.
Read an excerpt.
Natalie Zutter is tickled that she managed to accidentally handsell this book while walking her kiddo around Brooklyn. Talk SFF with her on Twitter and Bluesky!