A group of convicts, all facing life sentences, are offered instead an opportunity of a one-way trip to Mars, in order to prepare the habitable way station there for the scientists and colonists who will follow. It is a modern take on transportation, which is to say using convicted criminals to tame the uncivilized spaces for the settlers to come after. As they have done in many cultures and many places such as Australia or French Guinea, digging out roads and railway lines or draining the swamps. Dirty jobs with a high turnover in life expectancy and downright damnable working conditions, men and women excluded from the safety net of trade union representation or even basic human civility. A disposable workforce ignored even from the sight of a possibly interventionaist God, if you think along such mauve pathways.
In short, mankind is going to the stars, dragging some of its worst historical baggage with it. Choosing to forget the lessons of the past – not an uncommon human failing in any century – and refusing to be stained by colonialist history. Hoping that we should ignore the past, horrors and all, rather than allowing our expansionist ambitions to be curtailed by it. Empires, and their visible representations, are not built on compassion. Vast grey, faceless masses built the Palace of Versailles and a legion of similarly forgotten masses laid every stone of The Taj Mahal. A monument to love built on a mountain of heartache. Why should it be any different on the surface of distant worlds, which up to this point have existed without the trace of a footfall by mankind.
One Way is a great adventure story, that should be said straight off the bat. It is a bit Dirty Dozen, it is a bit Suicide Squad, it is a bit Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None and it is a whole lot of Papillon on Mars. It is also a great account and record of human endurance in the face of brutal, cruel and greedy authoritarian control (masquerading behind free- wheeling capitalism). Throughout SJ Morden’s novel we are reminded of the raw adrenaline that can be produced by that most reliable of motivations; A Fate Worse Than Death. Which is to say, solitary confinement for the rest of their lives, buried alive and alone, death in life, a last breath on indefinite hold. Accept the harsh training and the prospect of a harsh time on the surface of a world that will never cease to be a lethal threat to their existence. Adopt that burden or sit alone in an empty cell staring at bare walls feeling one’s life being drained away, as insanity looms.
(Martian landscape, taken by NASA/JPL)
Mind you, it could be argued it takes a degree of insanity to put a group of people convicted of crimes of varying severity together in a confined location where stress is spread like butter with a hot blade. Surely all manner of horrors become possible if not darn right plausible.
I have read that SJ Morden is a doctor, a rocket scientist with degrees in geology and planetary physics. Yet for all these impressive academic and intellectual achievements it fails to record he also has a remarkable grasp of the mechanics of human sensibilities in extremis. He understands that while everyone of us has the potential for saintly behaviour and is capable of totally inhabiting the rarefied atmosphere of the moral high ground, we are equally capable of plummeting to the very depths, where paradise may not be lost, but entry certainly temporarily postponed.
At this point in human history, at this turning point in human history some might say, as we turn towards the stars, we must decide if we will make of it a heaven or a hell. Should we ever have to set up a committee or a talking shop to investigate this idea we really must hope that SJ Morden, or some one very like him, is sitting at that table.