Last Day on Mars by Kevin Emerson (SF Novel/First of Trilogy, 2017).
This, the first book in the Chronicle of the Dark Star trilogy, is a rollicking space opera adventure of the relatively near future (the main body of the novel is set in earth year 2213). It bears comparison to much of Heinlein’s classic juveniles–both in the scope of its concepts (BIG!) and in the fact that a pair of plucky adolescents are the key human characters. It’s a lot of fun and complete enough to enjoy without waiting for the next installment.
Yet I must admit I had a bit of wariness going in about the premise. I’d never read Emerson, but he’s hardly a novice AND he’s a former science teacher. So he HAS to know stars like our Sol just can’t go supernova, right? Not nearly enough mass. Well, yes, of course he is well aware of that–and in a solid Prelude (amounting to two separate Prologues in one), he dramatically explains the situation.
In the first, a super-alien race (later to be identified as the Drove) seems to be converting stars like ours to artificial supernovas for their own mysterious purposes. A member of another, also wildly advanced species (capable of time travel, among other things) set up shop on a hidden base on Mars to investigate (and maybe stop it?), but she’s murdered by one of this rogue bunch.
In the second part of the Prelude, humans have realized the inexplicable catastrophe their once peaceful Sun is building to. The only hope is to move the entire human race farther out in the Solar System, giving time to prepare a mass exodus (via fleets of enormous ships) to another system which has a planet in its habitable zone. This will of course take decades to accomplish.
So then we jump ahead to the day of the title, as the last of the huge starliners is about to evacuate the remaining humans from their temporary home on Mars and begin the years-long journey to Aaru-5. It’s noted that people will spend most of the trip in suspended animation, which makes perfect sense.
Anyway, we now meet Liam and Phoebe–smart but adventurous early-teen children of two pairs of scientists rushing to do final computer simulations for the vast terraforming tasks that will be required upon reaching their not-totally-Earthlike new home. Earth itself is a scorched cinder, soon to disappear into the expanding star; Mars is already wracked by violent storms from the souped up solar wind and will, within a couple years, meet the same fate just ahead of the vast explosion that will finish off everything else. They both have mixed feelings about the great adventure–they know they can’t stay, yet being born on Mars it’s the only home they’ve known.
They manage to get into trouble on this last full day on the fourth planet due to their youthful recklessness, but are rescued. The accompany their parents to a research station where the last minute calculations are to be performed only hours (maybe minutes) before their ship has to depart. This is one part of the book that is a bit too plot-convenient for my tastes, but Emerson handles it smoothly.
In any case a disaster (soon found to be sabotage) forces our young protagonists into the role of heroes, rescuing their seriously wounded parents and the all-important data from the last computer run. In the process, they also stumble upon the alien monitoring station, complete with the murdered alien’s body and a wrist device that allows Liam to experience the probable future. While using it makes him sick, he is warned of forthcoming dangers and is able to work his way around them. Unfortunately, using it also alerts the murderous Drove to his presence.
With adorable household robot JEFF (who looks like Giant Panda), the kids put their folks in suspension aboard a small ship and set off after the starliner, which has already had to depart to escape the quickly building storms.
A series of adventures follow, multiple mysteries building. There are possibly disloyal humans, ruthless aliens masquerading as humans (who may be the Drove or something else), a very funky space casino nestled among Saturn’s rings, the nearby station where the last starliner is supposed to take on supplies and all sorts of interesting adventures to encounter. I won’t spoil it for you readers, but of course Liam and Phoebe (and JEFF) power through it all in frequently slam-bang action fashion, while keeping their precious cargo (injured parents and computer info) intact.
The book ends with them hoping to catch up to the starliner at the next waystation, known as Delphi, and be reunited with Liam’s older sister and deliver the data the various aliens (also in hot pursuit) have an unhealthy interest in.
A brief Epilogue expertly adds new layers of mystery concerning all the secrets to come. There are strong hints that someone our heroes trust may be compromised, and in the very last few sentences (as Sol finally blows up a year later), Emerson deftly hints at the till-now obscure motives of the Drove.
This one is a big-time space adventure and a fine beginning to a promising series that is definitely up-to-date yet also has a vaguely nostalgic feel.