Have you ever seen the movie Life? With Ryan Reynolds and Jake Gyllenhaal? If you enjoyed that, you’ll love The Life Below.
When we last saw The Final Six, they were being shepherded to their rocket, getting ready to blast off to Europa – without Leo. Naomi, the communications & tech specialist, chosen because she knows too much about the mission. They couldn’t take her off the mission, but the International Space Training Camp could punish her by leaving her love interest behind on a failing Earth.
What Dr. Takumi and General Solokov of the ISTC did not account for was Dr. Greta Wagner, disgraced NASA scientist and previous head of the ISTC, taking matter into her own hands. She has also developed a rocket, this one intended for one astronaut instead of six. This ship will carry Leo through to a secret Martian rendezvous with The Final Six, and he’ll stay with them to Europa.
This isn’t the same sci-fi I was reading when we were at space camp and were following the finalists. The Life Below is a horror story if I’ve ever read one.
The Life Below is intended to be the final book in The Final Six duology, or so the internet tells me. Which doesn’t make sense. Everything feels unresolved and rushed. There’s this rule in writing (well, actually there aren’t really rules in writing, just ideas that you follow because they make sense or that you don’t because it’s an artistic choice, but I digress) that the last new question to be introduced is presented at the 80% mark. Ideally, this gives the author enough time to discuss all the questions and before wrapping up.
Neither this book, nor The Final Six followed this rule. With The Final Six, I kind of understood why. The author was trying to create tension, make people anticipate the second book, etc. I get the idea. But if this is intended to be the end of the duology, I don’t understand why they left as many questions unanswered as they did.
For example, why were the communication systems of the Pontus (The Final Six’s ship) sabotaged? What is that horrifying life form on Mars and why didn’t anybody share what might be waiting for the Pontus crew when they reached the Mars supply ship? Why are these mad scientists so intent on convincing everyone that there’s no life on Europa if it’s possible to peacefully co-inhabit? Well, I guess I know the answer to that one, but the biggest question is what is this new mission that Dr. Takumi is telling Sam about on the literal last page of the book? If this is the end of the duology, why is that the last page?
On top of the frustration from the lack of resolution, The Life Below feels generally rushed. It needs more rooting and more exploration. Tell me more about the surroundings, let me know more about what Naomi and Leo are thinking and feeling, and inform me more of the implications of the discoveries they’re making. This book could have easily stretched to fill an additional novel. 2/3 of this book take place on the Pontus. It would be easy to take the time in book two to fully explore life on the spacecraft, how the crew integrates their new member, and tasks and problems the astronauts encounter in space. It should take The Final Six around 6 years to get to Europa. In the span of this book, it feels like months, and there’s plenty of horror material to keep things entertaining on board the ship.
Then wrap up the trilogy with what happens when they reach their destination. The events that happen on the surface of Jupiter’s moon could be expanded upon (because they are terrifying) and they need to find a more reasonable solution than Patrick Star’s old idea of “We should take Bikini Bottom and push it somewhere else?” There needs to be repercussions for what Beckett does under the ice. Otherwise, we’ve been building this tension toward nothing.
At least we find out what’s going on with Beckett. Both why he’s awful and why he was picked for the mission. Again, though, I wish there had been a deeper exploration of that, too. He mentions a rough family life and severe punishment for any transgression. He also talks about how he obtained information by eavesdropping on his uncle, the President, and how he (and his father) use that info as leverage. We learn his motivations, and they’re understandable. It makes him feel like a character worth exploring, but we don’t.
Then, we’ve got Naomi. Without Sam directly here to push her, I’m not sure what her stakes are. Obviously she has to consider issues of life and death, but each situation needs to have some kind of risk to it. If this, then that. What are the stakes in convincing Sydney to stop delivering the radiation-resistant bacteria that will keep them from being fried alive on Europa’s atmosphere-less surface? The risk here isn’t imminent. They’ll all been surviving the RRB, even throwing the sample under a microscope did creep them out. Why does it matter now, and what is Naomi going to do about that?
Like with The Final Six, The Life Below featured a promising premise that fell flat due to issues with pacing problems and an event-driven plot. With little to no development or change in the characters, their beliefs, or stakes, I found myself uninvested in how this book turned out. At the end, I was frustrated at the lack of resolution.