In the mildly alternate present of Temi Oh’s debut novel Do You Dream of Terra-Two? the Earth is facing the same global climate crisis we are, but with a potential means of salvation we can’t claim as of yet—a viable plan to to repair the planet, but to escape to another. The titular Terra-Two was discovered several decades before the novel begins, and was recently discovered to be a haven for non-intelligent life. It appears perfect for human colonization.
The six young people chosen to embark on a decades-long interstellar mission to this pristine world were only 13 years old when they applied to the Off-World Colonization Project. They were a half dozen among several hundred very gifted British children chosen for enrollment in the Dalton Aerospace Academy, an intensive program founded with the sole purpose of training the astronauts, engineers, and employees of the UK Space Agency, which has already set up outposts on Mars and Europa. They were raised in an environment focused exclusively on preparing for the 23-year voyage to Terra-Two, a task more more difficult—and vital—when placed against a backdrop of an ailing Earth. Do You Dream of Terra-Two? is the meta-question of the novel, playing on the various connotations of the notion of dreaming: mirage, paradise, destination, folly.
We are first introduced to the Beta team, as these kids come to be known, in the weeks leading up to launch. To a person, they are emotionally wobbly: they’ve been under intense academic pressure throughout their school careers, but now they’re also suddenly something like celebrities, expected to glad-hand and smile for the cameras, even as the reality of what they’ve signed up for—undertaking a space voyage that will eclipse the their lived years this far—begins to sink in. They are high school seniors, of a sort at least, and they enact the social rituals of matriculation: goodbyes to friends and lovers, a final trip home to see parents who suddenly seem diminished and small, slipping responsibilities for one final moment of freedom.
When one of their number dies in ambiguous circumstances before the launch—maybe it was accidental, or maybe she jumped—their final moments on Earth seem even more like childhood’s end. The crew is reduced from six people who’ve trained together for months, to five guilt-ridden and grieving friends and a replacement who feels like an interloper. All of the hubbub of the month before launch falls away into the quiet sterility of the ship, the Earth a blue marble receding into the black. Do you Dream of Terra-Two? offers a brooding introspective take on the long tradition of the generation ship story, as the kids try to manage both their grief and the creeping claustrophobia of life on a space ship more than 8,400 days from its destination. The section set prior to the launch is rife with the concerns of a young adult novel—the anticipation and graduation—but the focus changes drastically once the group loses a member, and then leaves everything they’ve ever known behind. It’s a neat trick Oh performs, subtly changing the storytelling mode as her protagonists and their situation changes.
Though nothing much happens in their first months on the ship, the Damocles, the novel feels intensely plotted. The inner lives of the Beta team are so richly detailed, so vibrantly manifested, that the pages turn quickly. One boy begins to see visions of their lost teammate outside the port windows, begging him to let her in. Another girl glimpses Terra-Two in dreams both vivid and uncanny: there are times when she seems to know things about the planet before they are communicated by the scientists back on Earth. One voyager falls into an almost catatonic depression; another slips back into the patterns of a hidden eating disorder. The replacement for the dead teammate never quite fits in. Life on the Damocles is both rigorously boring and low-key terrifying, both because of the void outside and the conflicts within.
I’ve seen Do You Dream of Terra-Two? compared to another accounting of humanity’s diaspora—that depicted in Becky Chambers’ Wayfarer series, in which humans escaped their homeworld on ships that carried them into a wider galactic civilization. I can see why someone might connect the two: both Oh and Chambers are so humane in their exploration of humanity, even as they are unflinching in detailing our foibles within a science fictional setting. I think a stronger comparison is Molly Glass’s Dazzle of Day, which details life on a generation ship as it nears its destination. Both Oh’s and Gloss’s novels are intensely introspective and contemplative, chiefly concerned with detailing the inner lives of people in exodus from a dying earth. Certainly, Temi Oh’s first novel lingered with me for days after I finished it, reflecting on the potency of its imperfect humanity.