Robin Parrish’s Offworld is a page-turner, if nothing else. The novel opens with an astronaut collapsing during a dust storm on Mars! And it continues to deliver a never-ending series of intriguing mysteries and heart-pounding incidents. The astronaut, Christopher Burke’s, inexplicable survival is quickly supplanted first by the astronauts loosing all contact with Earth, then by the terrible discovery that all life on Earth seems to have simply disappeared, including the animals. As the reader gets deeper and deeper into the novel, the mysteries get broader as well. I found myself reading more and more simply to figure out where Parrish was heading and if he would manage to tie up all his mysteries in a neat bow.
This preoccupation with the concept and with figuring out the mysteries seems to have been shared by the author. The characters are for the most part cyphers. Some effort was made to give them all a backstory and believable relationships. There are two romantic subplots, one that flows relatively naturally, and the other that feels largely tacked on. The enormity of returning to an empty world after years in space is only lightly touched upon. Each character is granted a moment, and one is allowed to have an entirely rational (given the circumstances) breakdown, but this is not a character piece. It is the mystery that is important—the mystery, and the action sequences. There are hurricanes and dust storms, floods, and shootouts. This is a novel stuffed with incident but in some ways these action sequences are simply treading water until the people who can explain the plot show up.
There is another word to describe Offworld that it would be remiss of me to forget: Christian. This is Christian Science Fiction, and the author was as a journalist on the cutting edge of Christian culture. This is not every reader’s cup of tea, and cards on the table, it isn’t quite mine either. But I left this observation until the end because until the climax Christianity plays a subdued part in the novel. In the final pages, however, Parrish makes a spirited attempt to meld Hard SF and Christian Theology into an explanation for all the mysteries of the novel. I don’t object to such a melding on principle, not if the author can make it work within the world of the story, but it is a very tricky combination and Parrish doesn’t quite pull it off. Partly because it is a very tricky combination and would have to be done very very well for me to accept it. But also because it is too rushed. After an entire novel’s worth of mystery and action, the actual explanation is done in a matter of pages. Far too quickly for the concept, and far too quickly for the climax. Offworld is a novel of ideas and of adventure that doesn’t quite stick the landing.