When I was making my first pass through my SPSFC team’s first-round allotment, Jeannette Bedard’s Day 115 on an Alien World immediately stood out. With this book being a competition entry, I had no background and didn’t even realize it was a sci-fi mystery novel. So when bodies dropped in the first chapter, it got my attention, and it got the attention of enough of our judges for us to come back and give it a full read.
Day 115 on an Alien World begins nearly four months in to a colonizing mission on a previous uninhabited planet. But when two of the colonists die in a shocking vehicular accident, one of the surviving crew begins to browse the journal entries of the deceased. What he finds is an investigation into a much bigger sabotage operation—an investigation that was just one step away from conclusion. The remaining question is whether he can piece together the clues and complete the investigation before any more colonists are lost.
Over the last year, I’ve read quite a few works that start as speculative murder mysteries before revealing themselves as another sort of story at heart, whether a story of the investigators working through their own traumas, or confronting injustice on a galactic scale. Day 115 on an Alien World is just what it says on the tin: it’s a sci-fi murder mystery. And it’s a good one.
While Gary Holbrook opens as the main perspective character, Day 115 is mostly told through the eyes of his unwilling partner Margo, a passenger on the doomed shuttle and author of the journals that detailed the sabotage investigation. And we get a fairly nuanced dive into Margo’s character, as well as a good window into Gary’s, though the side characters tend toward one-dimensionality. We see enough to get a basic sense of their motivations—sufficient to let us know what goals may give them motive for sabotage—but not a whole lot besides.
But that’s to be expected in a true mystery story. We don’t need a series of character studies, we need a sense of how and why the crimes might have been carried out and who had motive and opportunity. And once the story gets through the initial setup and introductions, it gives us that. Margo’s attempt to build a life on the colony is peppered with suspicious incidents, and each provides a fresh set of clues and new angles for investigation. It keeps the pace moving splendidly—from about 35% on, I genuinely couldn’t put it down—and gives the reader enough information to make reasonable guesses about the perpetrator without giving the game away too early.
If there’s one aspect that holds the tale back, it’s a consistent problem with awkward, over-the-top dialogue. The novel offers enough of a window into the various characters to see how each has goals and actions that make sense for them. But the direct communication between those secondary characters and the leads can make them feel like caricatures, with bizarrely extreme hostility in some places and something near mustache-twirling in the final reveal. The nuance is there underneath the dialogue, but the awkwardness of the verbal communication creates an extraordinarily obvious red herring and robs an otherwise strong conclusion of some of its power.
Overall, this is a quality sci-fi mystery, with excellent pacing, a solid lead, and a well-constructed series of clues. The flat side characters come with the territory to some extent, but the awkward dialogue poses more of a problem and holds Day 115 on an Alien World back from a higher rating. But still, if you have the hankering for an investigation into sabotage on an outer space colonizing mission, Bedard provides an excellent offering.
Recommended if you like: mystery plots in sci-fi settings.
Can I use it for Bingo? It’s hard mode for Self-Published and Mystery Plot.
Overall rating: 15 of Tar Vol’s 20. Four stars on Goodreads.
SPSFC Score: 7.5/10 for my personal score. We will await ratings from the remaining judges before releasing an official team score.