Walking to Aldebaran is a sci-fi novella from Adrian Tchaikovsky, whose other sci-fi works, including the seminal Children of Time have a very strong reputation. This one is an intriguing blend of stone cold horror, a well-voiced, convincingly characterised protagonist, and some Big Ideas which I’d like to see looked into a little more.
So, lets talk about the world. It’s a rock. An inhospitable rock, floating in a less-than salubrious neighbourhood of the solar system. A rock without much going for it at all. Except that once you’ve walked into the hoes in this rock, once you’ve left behind the world you know – there are rooms. Some of them are lethal. Some of them are decrepit. Some are filled with treasures. It’s like a lucky dip, where half the prizes are bear traps. And why would you want to go in there? Because some of these chambers empty out into somewhere else. You can walk a day or two through a rock that wasn’t two days across when you entered it, dodging horrifying creatures and environmental hazards – and come out in Alpha Centauri. Or…somewhere else, anyway. But the place is a maze, and a puzzle, and it’s not at all unlikely to stick something sharp in your ribcage. It also has a penchant for darkness, for tunnels you want to creep along very carefully, in case you run into something with more teeth and tentacles than thumbs. And for darkness, because if what you’re likely to see is teeth and tentacles, why would you want to.
All of this is realised in the protagonist’s monologue, a person who’s been trapped in this somewhat-deadly environment for a while. Their chatty, colloquial style overlays the bedrock tunnels, the sinuous tentacles, the bloodied claws, the necessary blood and murder and isolation and death with a folksy charm that manages to both lighten and accentuate the mood of creeping horror.
This is not a place for people. It’s a wilderness, with a razor under every rock, and a rattlesnake under every razor. The quiet, uncaring lethality is evoked with precision, and you can’t deny the emotional impact – the creeping horror, the disgust and terror that moves inexorably from the page to the reader.
Speaking of disgust and terror – the protagonist is our voice, our eyes in an absolute darkness. He is Gary, a human astronaut, from a mission dragged halfway across the solar system to investigate this rock that leads to elsewhere. And he is alone. As the text progresses, we discover more of the context around his isolation, about how Gary ended up wandering the halls. In the meantime, his voice is relentlessly, worryingly calm. It digs at the past with forensic razors, and it approaches the present with concern and a blend of enthusiasm and fatigue which is worryingly familiar. Gary is tired. Gary has been walking for a long time. Gary wants to see other people again, to see something other than the rock again. And we see some of the past with Gary, in his memory – in the mission to the rock, in the way that people interact with him then, in the stories he tells of friends and antagonists. At the same time, there’s a slow, crawling sense that Gary is telling a story, in a place where any mis-step can be monstrous, in order to stay sane. There are changes, movements in the dark. The reader is following their narrator down a rabbit-hole of terror and transition. Gary in the world is a person, a person you’d be more than happy to take out to dinner -a hero. Gary in the rock is, perhaps, something else. There’s a sublime artistry to the prose, making Gary at once sympathetic and troubling; the reader can feel his pain and loneliness and despair, and the madness creeping along at the edge of vision. We can see the golden idol, and we can see the feet of clay. This is Gary’s story, and we’re along for the ride – and for that, it feels real – often horrifyingly so.
The plot? Well, it’s the story of Gary trying to find his way home. Of walking through fire and water to find his people. Of defeating death-traps, and making friends (or making enemies). It’s the tory of how the walk changes Gary, how it takes what he wants and what he expects, and who he is, and gets inside him, changes his perspective. It’s a story of change, of the horrors and wonders of exploration and the horrors and wonders of humanity. There’s a lot there – the normal, the cold coffee and banter between astronauts on a mission, the strange - the crushing rocks and strange entities beneath the earth – and the liminal barrier between the two, as Gary tries to find his way home.
Is it any good? Oh my yes. It’s sharp, thoughtful and tightly plotted. The dialogue is pitch-perfect and the story will have you hanging on every word. It’s a clever story, too, with some high-concept ideas to play with which will reward curiosity. And it’s a multi-layered character-piece, in a story which demands character from both those in the story and those reading it. It’s a great story, and one I thoroughly recommend picking up.