Heartfelt Sci-Fi: Light Years From Home by Mike Chen

Mike Chen’s refusal to stick to a single genre box became one of his greatest strengths as a writer; its narratives are nimble and never too reliant on gimmicks, but it always leans into the familiar and enjoyable conventions of a given genre. His knack for genre-hopping would be reason enough to read Chen’s work, but that’s not what makes him unique. Whether writing about time travel, the apocalypse, superheroes, or alien invasions, Mike Chen’s work examines, reveals, and ultimately heals a beating human heart. And with Light years from homehe did it again.

A lot has happened to Evie and Kass Shao over the past fifteen years after their brother Jakob passed away. Their father, obsessed with the theory that he was abducted by aliens, throws himself into the plot, desperate to prove it and ends up lost. As Evie falls into the conspiracy web created by her father, Kass shoulders the burden of caring for their mother, their home, and being there to catch the crumbling pieces of her family as the roots of Evie go deeper into the internet, searching for Jakob in every bit of data she can hack. And the day Jakob returns, older, wiser, scarred, and speaking of an intergalactic war of which he is a vital part, it will be up to the Shao siblings to see if they can reconnect and save each other before it all goes wrong. disappear. up to the flames.

Slight spoilers to follow.

I’ll be honest, the back copy made me believe with this book that part of the main conflict would be the “Was Jakob actually kidnapped or not?” Is it all in his head or is it real? And while that would have been interesting, what’s more interesting is that Chen went, “Nah,” and we meet Jakob in chapter 1 literally on a spaceship, in the middle of an intergalactic war, trying to navigate in the trauma of battling a terrible force known as the Awakened and keeping his Seven Bells fleet friends alive long enough to stop them. Bringing us into this moment, in media res, as Jakob Shao, alive and well and absolutely on a goddamn spaceship, Chen subverts expectations the moment the book opens. Not only that, but our first impression of Jakob sets the tone for every beat to come, as who he was is at constant odds with who he has become, and Chen’s mines beat both dramatically and subtly soon after, Jakob returns to Earth and back to his remaining family’s life…which isn’t going so well.

The story begins in the stars but quickly returns to Earth soon after, as we meet the other members of the Shao family, who have each been grief-stricken in their own way, making up for that loss in any way they can. Evie threw herself into her research into extraterrestrial civilizations, extraterrestrial sightings, taking every job to pay the bills, devoting all her free time to research, and moved around the country, rarely speaking to her family. Kass, meanwhile, stayed home, putting down deep roots, refusing to leave especially as their mother continued to succumb to dementia. Frustrated with her situation and angry at being the only child left to care for her mother, Kass is barely coping. And when Jakob comes back into their lives, the powder keg is about to explode.

Chen is a fantastic writer for many reasons – strong sense of plot, imaginative sci-fi concepts and world-building, well-realized three-dimensional characters, and beautifully crafted prose – but in this book and his others, it is the balance on the tightrope between the fantastic and the fragile family dynamics at the heart of this story. There’s a tricky rise and fall that it maintains, moving us into sci-fi just long enough to lead us back to the complex interactions these long-lost siblings have, and then back into a sci-fi plot. only to have a moment of personal friction introduce a new complication and so on. It’s engaging, masterful, and a testament to Chen’s talent that each section is not only captivating like the others, but they all work together and form something unique in the genre. Jakob’s wartime story and his growth as a mature individual are meticulously framed through the angst and miscommunication that the siblings must manage and overcome, as the problems keep piling up. Often, stories of intrigue and stories of the heart can conflict, but Chen shows how with the right mix of care and craftsmanship, they can intertwine into something unique and beautiful.

Mike Chen’s brand of heartfelt human stories that branch out and live alongside epic sci-fi settings continues in Light years from home and is another home run for him. It has everything a reader new to it or the genre could want, and enough fresh perspectives and ideas, along with precision world building and characterization, to make a seasoned reader happy as well. If you haven’t read his work yet, there’s no better time than now, and this book is the one you’re going to want to start with.

Light years from home is published by Mira Books.
Read an excerpt here.
Disclaimer: Martin Cahill is named in the book’s acknowledgments by Mike Chen, for helping him find titles.

Martin Cahill is a writer living in Queens who works as Marketing and Publicity Manager for Erewhon Books. He has work of fiction coming out in 2021 from Serial Box, as well as Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Fireside Fiction. Martin has also written book reviews and essays for Book Riot, Strange Horizons, and the Barnes and Noble SF&F blog. Follow him online at @mcflycahill90 and its new Substack newsletter, Weathervane, for thoughts on books, games, and other wonderfully cheesy stuff.

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