The Specter of Something More in “Ghost Station”

The eeriness and isolation of uncolonized, hostile worlds make S.A. Barnes’s sophomore novel, Ghost Station, feel claustrophobic. Yet it also remains a work about community and personhood that centers on self-knowledge and self-chosen identity. These opposing thematic threads reflect the motivating force of the story personified in Ophelia Bray, the black sheep of an obscenely rich family. Ophelia or Phe, is a psychologist seeking redemption after one of her patients commits suicide. When she inserts herself into an exploration crew to distance herself from both the tragedy and her family’s manipulation, she finds herself amid a corporate coverup and a crew that carry their own secrets.

What later ensues is an exoplanet mystery where the stakes only become higher as Phe suspects members of the crew exhibiting symptoms of a contagious space condition labeled ERS. Her studies are based on prevention until she begins to exhibit hallmarks of the condition and things begin to unravel. The past comes, if you will allow me, to haunt her. Phe has baggage, as does the rest of the crew, but hers is a little more specific. The link to ERS is personal.

At its most topical, Barnes’s novel appears to be a thriller bordering on horror. There are certainly moments and images that both evoke and grasp various sci-fi horror images of the past. Torn bodies on lab tables bring to mind Event Horizon. Unsettling body horror recalls The Thing, never mind that the exoplanet station they visit is excruciatingly cold. The elements are there but they can’t coalesce satisfactorily because Phe gets in the way. Her thoughts permeate the work and, given she is the main character and the reader’s point of view, it’s not unsurprising. But her constant analysis and self-conscious behavior, almost neurosis, can be wearisome.

Following Phe’s perspective is a case study of embodying another person. Barnes’s skill in helping the reader understand Phe’s perception and thoughts is one of the stronger facets of the novel. There is a careful and overwhelming interplay of thoughts as the psychologist in Phe takes over when it comes to tense situations or disconcerting visions as they occur in the story. The fluidity of prose as the narrative jumps from Phe’s thoughts to that of the external action in the story is excellent.

The period in which this novel takes place is ambiguous but alludes to a near future, though some curious anachronisms persist. When demoing sleep headsets courtesy of her employer, Phe clarifies to the crew that the simulation cannot recreate people: “It’s too much processing power, and our brains are still too good at detecting AI impersonations when it comes to people we know.” Rather than providing a deeper narrative explanation, the line feels topical. Barnes appears to be reassuring herself of the incompetence of a new technology that has (regretfully) revolutionized the digital landscape in the two or so years since its arrival. This mention of AI is made while humanity busily colonizes the galaxy and the crew uses a medical multi-tool device to aid everything from MRI scans to minor surgery. These technologies and their shortcomings chip away at confident worldbuilding. 

The classic trope of mega-corporations carries over into Ghost Station and with it the acceptance of characters who suffer under them. Phe’s own crew has a cost of living debt to pay or loved ones who need medical care. Class is a close subject, particular as Phe navigates her privileged status against her reality as a black sheep. Although the crew is conscious of the system and earnest disputes among them do take shape, they are declawed conversations. It’s an accepted reality that normal people should have to risk life and limb to survive in this corporate-dominated universe. In a bleak moment, it feels that Barnes is holding up a mirror, as some of the best science fiction does. 

A book straddling two genres is hardly a hit against its value, but Barnes’s shuffling of tone and drawn-out narrative over more than 350 pages feels unwarranted. Add to this a “clean” ending, which may or may not be a reader’s preference, and Ghost Station feels overall “safe” and conventional. After the struggle and horror Phe endures, the conclusion underserves its main character. 

The centering of humanity and self-worth makes the story in Ghost Station worthwhile, if not feel-good, as characters confront their faults head-on. Yet the reader would be amiss to not ask for more of the prose and narrative from Barnes in the future. The promise is there—it only needs to be fulfilled.


See Also

Ghost Station

by S.A. Barnes

Tor Nightfire

Published on April 9, 2024

Source link