The Phobos Experience by Mary Robinette Kowal, Fantasy & Science Fiction Magazine, July/August 2018

This bit of space opera came at a bad time for me. I’m about 550 pages through Seveneves by Neal Stephenson, and so much of this story mixed with Seveneves in my brain and even as I was reading it, the two seemed to take place in the same world–and maybe even on the same timeline. Did I say it came at a bad time? Maybe it was just right.


Three scientists are sent to Phobos, a tiny moon of Mars, to explore a cave system on the 14-kilometer moon. They find much more than they bargained for.


The main character, Darlene, is a NavComp who plots a course through space for pilots cov1807lg-250to follow. She is on this mission in that capacity. She also suffers from benign, yet incapacitating vertigo. Sorta a big deal in space. While it’s an interesting character trait, it also becomes a nucance, as her vertigo is the sole construct that causes most of the tension in this story–which, to me, feels a bit sloppy, or lazy. The whole plot would be very boring without her vertigo, so the whole plot hinges on the fact that Darlene doesn’t follow protocol and tell her superiors that she is unfit to go on this mission, which doesn’t make her seem smart of likable.


Phobos is a moon covered in 3-4 feet of dust. Its light gravitational pull means that when the dust is disturbed it goes everywhere. It also means there’s a ton of stuff that can hide on Phobos. I think this is the best part of this story. It seemed real to me and I felt as though I now know what it’s like to be on Phobos.


It’s a fine story, but like so many the ending doesn’t really pack a punch. It peters out instead. The main character never really changes, though her actions change the circumstances she is in. At the end I found myself asking, “so what,” mostly because this seems like the beginning of a much larger story–the inciting incident of a longer story, that still needs to be told.


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