"The Wanderers" is a 2017 novel by Meg Howrey, depicting the space program at a time roughly contemporary to the time the book was published. The book is about a mission to Mars, or at the least the incipient phase of it: to see how astronauts might cope with the stress of being in close confines for the duration of the trip, three astronauts are selected to live inside of a simulated spacecraft in Utah for over a year. Which brings us to an unavoidable question: is this a science-fiction novel? For me, if I had to put this book one one side of the blurry line that divides literary fiction from science-fiction, I would call it literary fiction, due to the book's focus on character development over technology, as well as the fact that very little in the book is not part of our current technology.
The book also has a format that makes it easier to read, with chapters from the viewpoint of one of six characters: there are three astronauts in the simulator: Helen, an older widow, from the United States, Yoshi, a married man from Japan, and Sergei, a Russian man going through the process of divorce. Each one of them is counterposed with a relative outside of the simulator: Helen's daughter Mirielle, an aspiring actress, Yoshi's wife Madoka, a robotics executive, and Sergie's teenage son Dimitri, who is coming to terms with his homosexuality. Switching between the viewpoints of the six characters seems somewhat of a gimmick, but it makes the book easier to read. The book deals with the psychological struggles of those inside the simulator, as they deal with the stress and boredom of being cut-off, and the parallel psychological struggles of their relatives, who deal with contemporary problems: Mirielle, an actress, is intimidated by the scientific ability of her mother, and Dmitri is afraid his traditional Russian father will find out about his homosexuality. This is another reason why I didn't think of this book as being science-fiction: the description of contemporary manners and problems was just too pitch perfect (although, in the case of Dmitri, maybe too much: "What if Dad finds out I am gay" seems like a cliche to me. Also, Dad already knows and doesn't care, Dmitri.)
Recently, I had honed in on a broad, but helpful definition of literary fiction: literary fiction is about people finding meaning in a world where institutions provide basic needs. And this is actually very useful for the science-fiction portion of the book, because right now, we have the technology to land a spacecraft that could contain three people on Mars. The remaining challenge is seeing if people can maintain their physical and mental health during the journey. A one hundred million mile journey is within our ability, conquering human boredom might not be. I also like that this book dealt with this in a realistic fashion: unlike other media that featured overly dramatic space explorers, this book starts with the reasonable premise that the astronauts are psychologically healthy people. They have conflicts and emotional problems, but they overall manage to act in a functional manner. They are veterans of rigorous training and past experiences, and they act like it. The drama of their separation comes naturally, and never feels forced.
I found this book by chance, but I would recommend it as a good novel that bridges contemporary life, and science-fiction concepts.