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Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Obscura by Joe Hart

Thomas & Mercer, 340 pages, $24.95

“Obscura” is one of those can’t-put-it-down books. It’s a sci-fi thriller. It’s a book by a male author with a credibly-voiced female protagonist. It’s a dour look at our future.

Dr. Gillian Ryan, a research neurologist, is burdened by a double tragedy. Her husband died of a new dementia-like disease, probably brought on by the increasing pollution and environmental degradation, and now her young daughter also has it. Gillian has devoted herself to finding a cure. At the same time, Gillian treasures each minute spent with her daughter. It’s a tug on her priorities.

That dilemma is further challenged when an old boyfriend, now a NASA pilot, wants her to join his team to solve an unspecified medical crisis in space. Gillian’s lab is going under, sunk by the lack of funding. Carson LeCroix has a terrible offer: permanent funding for her project in exchange for her trip to a space station orbiting Earth. Six months at the most. Save lives, win funding, maybe advance a cure for her daughter. This doesn’t sound like Gillian’s cup of tea, but in the end she agrees.

Joining Gillian is her research assistant and friend, Birk Lindqvist, a gentle Swedish giant who has trouble with American idioms. In other words, author Joe Hart works tropes into his space ensemble: heroine, hero, loyal assistant, efficient co-pilot, nasty and mysterious administrator, laconic cowboy-type, competent doctor (“I’m a doctor, Jim, not Matt Damon.”). Although Hart’s book follows a well-worn path of ensemble-in-space, his take on the genre is surprising and entertaining.

The suspenseful part begins when Gillian is the only one awake after the others have chosen stasis for their two-month journey to (sorry, spoiler alert) the actual site of the medical crisis. She begins to sense there is someone else awake on the ship. She hears doors opening and footsteps. Maybe it’s overwork. Maybe it’s the opioids to which she is addicted. Maybe it is the weaning off of the opioids. Maybe she is just nuts.

Then someone is murdered. Then someone tries to murder Gillian, again and again. Is that enough to keep you reading yet? It was enough for me.

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