Lucy Kissick is a planetary physicist and nuclear scientist so brings plenty of technical backing to her debut hard science fiction novel Plutoshine. As the name suggests, the book takes place on the planet (ex-planet?) Pluto sometime in the near future and involves a terraforming project to bring light and warmth to the surface. At the same time, there is the distinct possibility of some form of extra-terrestrial life, existing even on this freezing, dark rock.
Plutoshine opens one year after a tragedy that put the colony’s founder in a coma and left his daughter Nou mute. The colony itself is thriving, despite the intense cold and constant darkness in which the people live and inhabitants of the settlement of Stern live very well. A terraforming team has arrived to bring to fruition a long term project to bring sunlight to Pluto. Their plan it to mine of the moons to create a giant mirror and at the same time gaze the atmosphere with three icy comets to thicken the atmosphere. None of these processes is without risk and there are plenty of stories of terraforming failures that led to catastrophe. But it soon appears also that at least one person on Pluto is keen to see the project fail.
In and around this main plot is the story of Nou, an eleven year old who has been traumatised into silence. Lucian, one of the lead terraformers, takes Nou under his wing and starts to teach her sign language as a way of breaking through her communication barrier. When he does so she reveals secrets about Pluto that will not only impact on Lucian’s project but on the future of the solar system.
Plutoshine is a novel full of science fiction standards – hostile environments, interstellar politics, large scale engineering projects and the possibility of alien life. But Kissick delivers these in a new setting with a page-turning plot involving saboteurs and last minute saves, building up to a massive, destructive and tense finale. And she does this while never losing sight of the characters that sit in the middle of all of the action. Not only Nou and Lucian, who are well drawn, but also Nou’s brother Edmund thrust into command when his famous father was sent into a coma.
There has been plenty of science fiction recently that has galaxy spanning empires, multiple alien species and huge space battles. Plutoshine is more intimate in comparison with its single icy setting, while considering some of the broader implications of its action. And in doing so, it does what all good science fiction does: delivers on the technical, wonderous and mind-opening while never forgetting the very human humans at the centre of the action.