Sunday, 25 March 2018

Unearthed by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner

Unearthed by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner is the first in a new series from the authors that brought us the Starbound Trilogy, which started with These Broken Stars. I really enjoyed their first series, but this first book was a bit of a struggle to get through, mainly thanks to some persistent science errors.

When Earth intercepts a message from a long-extinct alien race, it seems like the solution the planet has been waiting for. The Undying's advanced technology has the potential to undo environmental damage and turn lives around, and Gaia, their former home planet, is a treasure trove waiting to be uncovered.

For Jules Addison and his fellow scholars, the discovery of an alien culture offers unprecedented opportunity for study ... as long as scavengers like Amelia Radcliffe don't loot everything first.

Mia and Jules' different reasons for smuggling themselves onto Gaia put them immediately at odds, but after escaping a dangerous confrontation with other scavvers, they form a fragile alliance. In order to penetrate the Undying temple and reach the tech and information hidden within, the two must decode the ancient race's secrets and survive their traps. But the more they learn about the Undying, the more their presence in the temple seems to be part of a grand design that could spell the end of the human race ...

This book didn't start too badly but I had trouble getting fully immersed. Once the plot really got going it felt a bit too contrived and, quite frankly, like a video game. I suspect it's difficult to write people solving puzzles in an alien temple-thing without it sounding like a video game... but I ended up putting the book aside for several weeks because the game I was playing at the time was better and actually made more sense (Zelda: Breath of the Wild). Why do I bring up sense-making? Well there were some science errors in Unearthed, including one that was so integral to the setting it was mentioned over and over again. It annoyed me and contributed to my putting the book down when I was about half-way through.

Unfortunately, when I picked it up again, the things that had annoyed me about the book hadn't magically disappeared (alas). The persistent science problem was still there, some other science stuff was a bit sloppy (first they're in another galaxy, then they're on the other side of our galaxy, then they're in another galaxy again, all without leaving the planet), and I didn't really connect with the characters. They weren't bad characters, but I found them more interesting individually than as a romantic couple. They're initial interactions were actually the most interesting, since they come from different countries and different socioeconomic statuses, setting up a slightly antagonistic vibe. Their inevitable coupling off was less satisfying. Also, the fact of their survival was a pretty logical assumption since the book is told in alternating first-person chapters, and a lot of the dangerous situations they were in felt less tense for it.

The ending was interesting but flawed. There was a pretty good reveal, but it went along with some things that didn't entirely make sense for sciencey reasons. Having said that, those things might be resolved in a satisfying way in later books when we know more. The thing that bothered me throughout the book doesn't have a chance of this though.

So what was it? The most egregious thing was the way the authors chose to deal with the lower oxygen levels of the planet all the action is set on. There's not zero oxygen and the atmosphere is otherwise breathable and yet... the characters all have breather masks (actual masks that cover their mouths and noses) which they generally sleep with so that they spend eight hours getting the right about of oxygen. What. Firstly, this is not how you deal with not quite enough oxygen in the atmosphere. I have worked in low oxygen environments; at telescopes 5 km above sea level the atmospheric pressure is about half that of sea level and hence there is about half as much oxygen. It's pretty straightforward to separate low-pressure and low-oxygen side effects since the latter goes away once you get some supplementary oxygen in your system. Also, that oxygen is delivered via nasal cannula (basically a tube that touches your nose) through intermittent bursts because you don't need that much pure oxygen to compensate. Using a mask when the atmosphere is perfectly serviceable makes no sense. The characters in Unearthed can't have been breathing pure oxygen for eight hours a day (that causes a lot of other problems) so why the masks? Were they actually carrying tanks of earth air? How hideously inefficient. Not to mention heavy. I have doubts about the weight of their oxygen tanks if they only contain oxygen for the amount of time needed, so let's not make that worse. (But yeah, their breather stuff definitely did not sound heavy enough.) They also kept saying things like "if we don't have our breathers we'll asphyxiate" which is an illogical statement if they're only wearing them at night and also aren't displaying any symptoms of running around in a low-oxygen environment without the breathers. There should have been heart palpitations at innocuous amounts of movement and feeling out of breath more easily before they started to adapt. (At most they got a tiny amount of brain fog.) Also, they should have started to adapt. I'm not saying taking oxygen to that planet is a bad idea overall, but people do adapt to low oxygen environments, given time. Their bodies get better at taking in what oxygen they can. Athletes often train at altitude for that very reason. And the residents of the Andes or the Himalayas don't run around with oxygen tanks all the time (and, for that matter, people have even managed to climb Mt Everest without oxygen — where the lower atmospheric pressure puts the oxygen content at about a third of what it is at sea level — not that I'm suggesting that's a great idea).

The matter of the breathers came up again and again because the characters were always talking about doing their time with the breathers or worrying about losing them and whatnot. So it just kept reminding me to be annoyed at it. It wouldn't have been nearly as annoying if it had just been mentioned once and allowed me to move on. The other that bothered me a little was one part where the characters should have probably gotten frostbite and/or hypothermia but didn't. Given what we were told about the planet they were on, I'm not convinced the main characters had warm enough clothes for where they ended up. But I guess freezing to death would have been an anticlimactic end to the book.

So while Unearthed ended on an interesting note that did make me want to learn what happens next, I probably won't be buying the next book in the series when it comes out. This is disappointing because I enjoyed the other series by these authors, but the characters in this one weren't interesting enough for me to overcome the other flaws of the book. I'm not categorically saying I definitely won't read the sequel, but right now "too many books, too little time" is winning out over completionism. I'm sure other people might not have as many issues with Unearthed as I did, and I suppose I'd recommend it to readers of YA to whom alien mystery dungeon puzzles particularly appeal.

3.5 / 5 stars

First published: December 2017, Allen & Unwin
Series: Yes, Unearthed book 1 of ? (I'd guess trilogy)
Format read: Paperback
Source: Purchased at either Target of Kmart, one of those (I'm not proud but at least it was cheap!)

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