I never know what to expect from Adrian Tchaikovsky, but he’s always entertaining. Walking to Aldebaran (2019) is unlike anything I’ve read from Tchaikovsky to date, a powerful, literary SF novella with an edgy, dark sense of humor and a strain of horror that gradually intensifies until its shocking ending.
British astronaut Gary Rendell is part of an international space team sent from Earth to explore a moon-sized, alien-made object ― officially called the Artefact, unofficially called the Frog God because of its appearance in photos ― that a space probe has found lurking in the outer reaches of our solar system. Through a series of events that are gradually unfolded to the reader, Rendell is now wandering alone inside the cold, endless, crypt-like tunnels inside of the rocky Artefact, where highly peculiar physics hold sway.
The Crypts are an artificial phenomenon which let matter, energy and information thumb their collective nose at relativity, and do it unchanged, without all that infinite-mass nonsense that approaching light speed entails.
Rendell is separated from his crewmates and desperately trying to find his way back to his ship or even just our solar system (the few exits that he has found seem to lead to other planets).
The chapters of Walking to Aldebaran alternate between the backstory of how Rendell got to be where he is now, and his exploration of the Artefact in current time, coming into contact with the Artefact’s other inhabitants and commenting on his experiences to the reader. The inside of the Artefact is a nightmarish place, dark and dangerous, with countless alien creatures, most of whom want to eat you. About one particularly horrific monster, Rendell observes:
It looks as though it got into God’s desk after school and nicked off with every single nasty toy confiscated from the fallen angels. It writhes towards me along the ceiling, various spiked parts of it clicking and clattering against the stone. It’s in no hurry. It’s probably waited a thousand years for some dumbass Earthman to come along and wake it up.
… Human ingenuity is drawing a blank. Captain Kirk would have thought of something by now, I’m sure, but I have no red-shirted confederates to feed to it.
Meanwhile, there’s also a mysterious scraping, scritching noise constantly echoing inside of Rendell’s skull, something that feels almost understandable to him, driving him to distraction. He develops an obsession with hunting down the source of the mental scratching and stomping it out.
My first reaction on finishing Walking to Aldebaran was, “Well played, Tchaikovsky!” This novella both surprised me and exceeded my expectations. Rendell’s situation and narrative voice at the beginning are similar to Mark Watney’s from The Martian: he’s lost and alone, and has a sarcastic sense of humor, though Gary Rendell’s narration is darker and more erudite. In fact, it’s reminiscent of John Gardner’s Grendel: Gary frequently uses literary allusions, ranging from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz to T.S. Eliot, and tosses out vocabulary-challenging words like pareidolia, quotidian, oubliettes, and anagnorisis.
The story gradually evolves into something far more strange and horrifying than The Martian. There’s one final literary reference that was the icing on the cake, but it’s a major spoiler (highlight the following text if you want to read the spoiler): I was getting serious Beowulf vibes from the ending and was pretty certain it wasn’t just my imagination. Then I realized that Rendell had commented a few times about how all the astronauts’ nametags on their spacesuits have their first initial and last name. G Rendell was the last piece of the puzzle clicking into place.
I’m not normally much of a fan of the horror genre, either in SF or fantasy, but I highly recommend Walking to Aldebaran for readers who enjoy science fiction that has unusual literary depth.