When I started reading A Rover’s Story by Jasmine Warga, I was expecting a cute, middle-grade tale about a Mars rover trundling about on the surface of Mars, happily doing its work. Instead, I got a story that was often heartbreaking and explored some enormous themes, including our own mortality, the legacy we leave behind, and what it means to say goodbye.
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A Rover’s Story is told from two perspectives. The first is Resilience (Res), the latest Mars rover built by JPL. Res is self-aware and can communicate with other machines but has no way to communicate with the humans (referred to as hazmats) who work on building him and who program his systems. As Res is put together, he discovers more about himself and his future mission but also begins to realize that he has gained human emotions. He worries that he is not good enough to go to Mars because he isn’t as rational as Journey, the other rover in the lab. Res begins to have fears about his future and worries about his programming, surely it must be faulty if he has developed feelings? Thankfully, despite being unable to communicate with the humans around him, Res can talk with Fly—the little helicopter drone who lives inside him—and later with Guardian, the satellite that orbits Mars and assists him from above. All the robots have their own personalities, some of which clash, but all of them are determined to make Resilience’s mission a success.
The other perspective comes from Sophie, the Asian-American daughter of one of the lead engineers who helped build and program Resilience. At the beginning of the book, Sophie is 12 and largely unimpressed with the Mars rover program that is taking up so much of her mother’s time. However, she begins writing letters to Resilience and soon the robot becomes something of an unknowing confidant as Sophie grows up. Through her letters, we see the human perspective of the mission as things go wrong on the Martian surface and some of the scientists experience their own challenges back on Earth.
A Rover’s Story takes place over several decades—from the initial construction of Resilience through to the end of his mission—and the pacing can at times feel a little off with months, years, and even decades passing in the turn of a page. That’s to be expected in many ways, Mars rovers aren’t known for their speed and the book would have become extraordinarily tedious had we followed Resilience for months and months slowly making his way across the Martian surface occasionally stopping to examine an interesting rock. However, the sudden leaps forward in time often felt a little jarring. I also had a problem with Sophie’s letters which always read as if they were being written by a 12-year-old and did not seem to reflect her increasing maturity.
Despite those minor issues, this is still an incredible book. Although not 100% scientifically accurate, A Rover’s Story largely follows the true story of the Perseverance rover and its helicopter companion Ingenuity and there is a lot here to excite readers and get them interested in the Mars rover program. However, this is also a deeply emotional story. Res learns about the fate of previous rovers, their systems going blank and memories fading as their outer shells rust away, and he wonders if that will be his fate too. His questions reflect those that all of us will have considered about the end of our own lives. What is the point of anything if all that I have experienced will one day disappear? And when these thoughts are combined with one of the subplots regarding a human character, they become even tougher to read about. There is also a truly tragic revelation toward the end that had me almost in tears as it reflected so perfectly through the rover’s eyes what it’s like to lose someone you love.
A Rover’s Story is an exceptional story, although one I would hesitate to recommend to anyone and everyone because there are some very hard-hitting themes here. Kids interested in space exploration and robotics will no doubt find a lot to enjoy here but I don’t believe that any prior interest in Mars, or space in general, is required because this is more a story about emotional connections than a straightforward sci-fi. Think Short Circuit rather than a Discovery Channel documentary. Just check out some content warnings before handing it over, especially to anyone struggling with grief in any way.
Read A Rover’s Story: Amazon, Bookshop
GeekMom received a copy of this title for review purposes.