In James Patrick Kelly’s new novel Mother Go, a young woman makes her way across the solar system, trying to flesh out an identity for herself, made all the more difficult by the fact that she’s a clone of a famous space explorer. It’s a wonderfully exuberant space opera, and it’s something of an experiment: it’s only available as an audiobook.
Set in the 22nd century, Mother Go follows Mariska Volochova, a girl raised on the Moon by a surrogate father. She’s the clone of a famous spacer, Natalia Volochova, and has been genetically modified to go into a state of hibernation in the long transit times between the wormholes that allow for interstellar travel. But Mariska rejects the legacy that the woman she’s cloned from has established for herself. She wants to stay back at home on the Moon with her friends, and doesn’t like the idea that her future could have been decided by someone other than herself.
While the story is engaging and interesting in its own right, the audio-first format provides some unique opportunities for the final product: the added performance of the story’s narrator, January LaVoy. She imparts Mariska with a level of dynamism, urgency, and emotion as the story requires. An author can do this with regular text, but there’s a nice level of visceral feeling to the actions and dialogue that is usually left up to the imagination of the reader.
This youthful force of rebellion drives the entire novel. Kelly sketches out a wonderful character in Mariska: headstrong, forceful, and competent, but still a teenager. When her “mother” returns to the solar system, she’s worried that she’ll be forced into an interstellar trip, and in protest, goes into a self-induced state of hibernation, intending to go down for a short while. Things don’t exactly go as planned: she eventually wakes up four years later. She learns that her boyfriend, Jake, has moved on, and after recovering, she impulsively signs up as a crew member on an inner-system space ship, which sets off a string of adventures: an accident aboard the ship, meeting and falling in love with a Martian, coping with the loss of friends, and ending up in the last place she’d ever expect: on the crew for an interstellar mission shepherded by her “mother.”
Mariska comes up against some complications once she lands on this mission: opposition to the expense of the interstellar mission has grown, and it forces her to contend with her desire to forge her own identity away from that of Natalia’s, and to remain with her friends as they go off into the depths of space.
What makes Mother Go an interesting story is that it’s not a book driven by a political plot or the search for some discovery far off into the universe, although those two themes figure in prominently. Mariska’s journey is the core of the narrative, her story following her as she grows as a person, not only making the decisions that guide her future, but also forcing her to contend with some serious consequences. Kelly sets up an intriguing, durable space opera world for the story, one that feels a bit like James S.A. Corey’s Expanse series or a classic Robert Heinlein juvenile novel, with a bit of Andy Weir’s The Martian (and his upcoming novel Artemis) thrown in.
The narrative here also harkens back to that classic era: Kelly assembled the novel out of several short stories that appeared in a couple of shorter works in Asimov’s Science Fiction and an anthology called Eclipse Four. This method of “fixing up” several short stories into a longer work is a time-honored tradition in science fiction’s history, and it works extremely well for this particular narrative.
While the narrative itself harkens back to a more traditional era of science fiction, this version looks to the future of publishing: it’s one of a growing number of works that are appearing as audiobooks first, rather than being published as a traditional, physical book. The market for audiobooks is exploding right now: according to the Audio Publisher’s Association, audiobook sales have increased by 20 percent each year for the last three years. Much like video streaming services have been creating their own exclusive content, these figures are driving publishers such as Audible or Tor Labs towards original, audio-first works, such as John Scalzi’s novella The Dispatcher, and now, Mother Go. It’s not clear if or when we’ll see a physical or ebook edition of this book: on his website, Kelly notes that he’s not permitted to publish a print version of the book until 2018.
While the audio-first release makes Mother Go somewhat of a novelty, Mariska’s story ensures that the book isn’t just an experiment that Audible is throwing out there: it’s a well-rounded and fun trip that harkens back to the optimistic era of golden-age sci-fi.