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Ghost Station by S.A. Barnes - Bookshop.org link3 stars

Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsS. A. Barnes’ follow-up to Dead Silence feels very much like she’s taking the same general formula out for a second date, because the first one seemed promising. Again we have a space crew on its way to a spooky destination, a not-entirely-reliable viewpoint character with unresolved family issues, and a future dominated by the usual evil corporations who value anything and everything as long as it isn’t human life. I’m not saying that this is a bad collection of tropes to latch onto, but it does take some banger storytelling if you want audiences not to care about the cliches.

Ghost Station is, I am very happy to report, better in its storytelling than Dead Silence. Barnes has gotten a lot smarter about following the rules that she sets, and there are no inexplicable time jumps or similar nonsense. Overall the effect ends up being closer to suspense-thriller than deep space horror. But there are some good eerie ideas introduced, even if some are left not fully realized. And we get some gore, which can make up for a lot.

Our heroine is Ophelia Bray, clinical psychologist and black sheep of the zillionaire Bray family, owners of the megacorp Pinnacle. In Barnes’s future, the universe has been teeming with advanced life, but so far, only ruined and abandoned civilizations have been found. If Barnes does one thing in this book that shows a leveled-up sophistication as a science fiction writer, it’s the way her world building takes inspiration from fun old ideas like the Fermi Paradox and the Great Filter, and there were aspects of this story that made me feel like I was in Jack McDevitt territory (a good thing). The question of why humanity has only found dead alien cities haunts the backstory here, as does one other sketchy little problem plaguing human crews on deep space missions.

A bizarre psychosis called Eckhart-Reiser Syndrome appears to strike space travelers at random. In its worst instances it can turn a person into a crazed murder machine, as in a deeply infamous case involving 29 victims that Ophelia has closer links to than she’s willing to let on. To assuage her guilt, she’s taken a job with her family’s chief corporate rival, Montrose, but her own reputation has been tarnished by the suicide of one of her patients. In a desperate move, she has gotten herself assigned to the crew of the Resilience, a research vessel bound for the planet Lyria 393-C, the rights to which have recently been sold to Montrose by Pinnacle. The idea is to have a psychologist present to diagnose and study any possible case of ERS as it happens, rather than waiting for a crew to return to Earth. But Ophelia’s own family warns that Montrose is probably just hoping to get rid of her and using her for plausible deniability, and as for the crew themselves, they’ve already lost one member and are not exactly going to welcome her warmly.

What follows is never quite what I would call scary (though “scary” is an odometer on which everyone’s mileage varies). But it is impressively tense at times. The action unfolds in a research outpost our heroes are surprised to find in a hurriedly abandoned state, where the landscape outside is buffeted by endless blizzards and eerie monolithic alien structures loom nearby. Barnes is not especially subtle about some things. (This book has the most hilariously on-the-nose usage of Chekhov’s Gun you’ll ever see.) But for the most part, Barnes really does nail the ominous and disorienting mood of being isolated on a distant and unknowably hostile world.

Barnes doesn’t develop her characters much beyond types. There’s the strong and silent captain, the joker, the guy with the chip on his shoulder, the wide-eyed n00b, and the hardass second in command. But Barnes humanizes them well within those types. Once we’re on the planet, there are pacing issues, which usually manifest in a feeling that she is holding back when she should be going hard. Barnes prefers a slow burn, which I like to see generally. (After all, we had to get fully halfway through the original Alien before the chest burster appears.) And we do get a few well-executed scenes of tension in the book’s final third, particularly in regards to an alien presence that may or may not still be lingering, that give us the sense that the build-up was worth it.

But the climax of a story like Ghost Station, even when it’s leaving certain mysteries unresolved, needs to swing for the fences. Fans of deep space horror want to see no less than a bloodcurdling frenzy, the kind of ending that keeps you up late reading and then robs you of sleep for the rest of the night. And Barnes comes frustratingly close, only to pull back at the crucial moment for a soft landing. Yes, she has improved a great deal since Dead Silence, and considering that she’s out here with a passion writing exactly the kind of books I keep whining I never see enough of, I admit I can feel like a bit of a jerk being such a critic. But take it as an indication of my own passion. Somewhere inside S. A. Barnes, like the voices that haunt her characters, there’s a voice ready to tell her to get out of her own way, to go as far and as fearlessly as she must to find the heart of darkness inside her story — and rip it out screaming.