Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Review of Good Morning, Midnight by Lily Brooks-Dalton

Time.  Sometimes you just don’t have enough, and others it’s all you’ve got.  The latter is is the situation of the two main characters in Lily Brooks-Dalton’s 2016 debut novel Good Morning, Midnight.  One stranded at an Arctic base and the other stuck on a long space flight from Jupiter, the human mind is given the freedom to conjure the breadth of its available material, to look in closer detail things it might have skipped over in the past, and perhaps, come to some higher sense of self-understanding.

Augustine is an elderly man stuck in the middle of a promise to himself to complete his life’s ambition: a theory of astronomy that will put his name in history books.  Accordingly, he has spent his life living at remote observatories, standing at telescopes and radio arrays, gathering and sifting data, never thinking about a normal life or family, or even colleagues around him.  The beginning of the novel finds him aged seventy-eight at the Barbeau Observatory in the Arctic, when an emergency strikes.  A major cataclysm affecting the world beyond, the Observatory is evacuated by the military.  But Augustine chooses to remain behind to complete his life’s ambition, and in doing so, is forced to reckon with time, solitude, and questions about what kind of person he has been.   

Likewise an ambitious person, Sully is a woman who gave up her dreams of a normal motherhood to join humanity’s first mission to Jupiter.  Her story opening when the flight has just completed its mission of placing probes in the gas giant’s orbit, Sully and her handful of fellow crew members now face the prospect of a long journey home.  The success of their mission initially able to keep them optimistic, when they lose contact with Earth a short time later, however, the mood stiffens, and each of the crew are left to their own devices as the months churn by and silence from Earth continues.

If my introduction is any indication, Good Morning, Midnight is a heavily introspective novel.  The interiority of Augustine and Sully taking center stage, daily life at the Barbeau Observatory and aboard the spaceship Ether are overlaid with inner thought, remembrances, and contemplation.  Softly prodding this heavy load forward is the mystery of what happened on Earth, while Augustine and Sully’s worldviews shift and turn confronting the relative freedom of time.  Nothing dull or dreary, the point at which the characters’ mindsets arrive is subtle but uplifting. 

In Augustine’s storyline, Brooks-Dalton does a beautiful job fleshing out the personal transition with symbolism.  (The wolf, polar bear, and little girl add color and meaning, in turn enhancing his portion of the novel.)  In Sully’s case, it’s the personalities of the crew surrounding her, interacting with her own, that drive the social tension, even as the milieu of her thoughts drives personal tension, particularly the choice she made to pursue her career ambitions rather than being a full-time mother.  The surrounding exposition is at times a little heavy-handed, and the scenes aboard the ship with the crew are occasionally juvenile, but for a novel with nothing but time on its hands, momentum is kept by the human detail—dynamically psychological in presentation rather than analysis.

In the end, the cover of Good Morning, Midnight looks extremely similar to the cover of Station Eleven, and indeed readers who enjoyed St. John Mandel’s novel, will very likely enjoy Brooks-Dalton’s.  Both are stripped down stories that use elements of science fiction to tell stories of fully-realized people living near-future scenarios.  Post-apocalypse coincidence only, where St. John Mandel presented a future reverted to a prior iteration of human society in order to give perspective on its accomplishments, Brooks-Dalton focuses on topics far more personal, including loss, regret, solitude, life’s goals, and perhaps most importantly, facing up to ourselves, past and present, to put a more balanced, understanding individual forward.  With the glut of low brow sf on the market these days, Good Morning, Midnight should be praised for it exploration of humanity in a future scene.

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