By Matthew Kresal
Space flight and alternate history, they're curious bedfellows, one might say. Both are born of dreams: one of what's out there, the other of what might have been. It's no surprise that the two have often gone hand in hand in countless works. Temi Oh's 2019 novel Do You Dream of Terra-Two? is one such example and a curious one for what it does in being a work of alternate history.
Oh's novel follows a recent trend of works, both alternate history and otherwise, with space exploration presented as an answer to climate change. Specifically, as has been the case with Mary Robinette Kowal's Lady Astronaut novels, the notion of colonizing other worlds to ensure humanity's survival from its worst effects. And like Kowal's novels, Oh explores the concept through the lens of alternate history. Oh's, however, is set far closer to our time, in the form of an alternate 2012.
And what a 2012 Oh creates. In many ways, it's very similar to a decade ago, with mentions of the 2008 recession, the London Olympics, Strictly Come Dancing, and so forth. It's a recognizable version of the recent past, but, of course, with a twist. Or, rather, a series of them. For example, the British Interplanetary Society (BIS) was founded not in 1933 but over a century earlier, circa 1812, giving rocket technology something of a headstart over our world. Or, in perhaps the most significant POD for the novel's timeline, the discovery of the titular Terra-Two's very existence in a binary star system in the early twentieth century and the theory, later proven, of an Earth-like extrasolar planet there. It is that world that is the destination, a century later, of ten astronauts, including six in their late teens, launched by the UK Space Agency (UKSA) to be the first settlers of this new world.
Making sense of Oh's timeline is a curious endeavor. There are mentions early in the novel of rockets used in the Napoleonic Wars and a replica First World War space shuttle in the BIS headquarters, for example. Yet, as the plot unfolds, there are references such as the 1967 Outer Space Treaty and Ed White still being the first American to walk in space on Gemini 4 that, while drawn from the real world, seem out of place in a timeline where space flight must have gotten a far earlier head start. Or, for that matter, how the confirmation of Terra-Two's existence or an expanded space program (which includes a Soviet presence on Mars because, in the novels 2012, the USSR still exists) with what one might assume would be a myriad of technological benefits has had surprisingly little impact on the wider world. Indeed, the technology seems a tad more advanced than the actual 2012 or a decade on as I write these words. What is more referenced, if sporadically, are social changes, such as a Christian group called the New Creationists, who view Terra-Two as nothing less than a second Garden of Eden. How does one make sense of the apparent contradictions?
Perhaps by admitting that, honestly, it doesn't matter. The view shared by Sea Lion's founder Tom Black is that alternate history is a setting, not a genre. As a backdrop is how Oh uses it here, allowing her to tell a story that could have taken place in the near future, such as the film Interstellar did with an ecological crisis that sets its space mission in motion. By anchoring it in an alternate history, and one built upon the recent past, Oh conducts an immediacy to the reader with references to the familiar alongside more fantastical ideas.
Ultimately, what Oh and Do You Dream of Terra-Two? is interested in isn't the alternate history. The focus is on the six young human beings, the so-called Betas, three young men and three young women, in many respects the ultimate overachievers, all chosen to be sent on a 23-year journey to establish humanity's first outpost on a distant world alongside four experienced adult astronauts. It is through their eyes that readers make the journey, with Oh exploring what it must be like for those so young to decide the course of their lives at such an age and the effect it has upon them having the weight of humanity’s potential survival placed on their shoulders. While there is a dash of teenage angst, as one might expect, as conflicts arise and relationships blossom, it's by no means the defining characteristic of the novel. The wonder and boredom of space flight, where things go from mundane to terrifying in a heartbeat, is wonderfully captured here, as is the question of what makes someone literally want to get off this pale blue dot humanity calls home. Whether the journey makes or breaks them, or if everyone survives, isn't for this reviewer to spoil, but it's most definitely one worth taking with them.
If only to read a good example of alternate history as setting, as a place to tell a story, rather than the setting being the story.