Last Updated on February 14, 2024
S.A Barnes’ Ghost Station follows Dr. Ophelia Bray, a psychiatrist who needs time to let fervor over the public suicide of one of her patients subside. While many people might move into pure research, or a sabbatical, Bray needs to feel helpful. She volunteers for a mission in space, hoping to prevent an outbreak of ERS.
Eckhart-Reiser Syndrome, or ERS, is a disease which affects people in space too long, and despite seeming like a mental disease—which is why she, as a psychiatrist, is going there—it’s also contagious. The crew includes Severin, the commander of the mission, Kate, the engineer and second in command, Birch, the pilot, Liana, the scientist, Suresh, in charge of inventory and whose jokes serve largely to irritate everyone, and Ava, who has recently died by wandering outside on a mission without telling anyone. Ophelia suspects it was ERS, and wants to confirm it.
Barnes has a strong focus on characterization in Ghost Station. Ophelia, our viewpoint character, is fully fleshed out with a history that seems nearly contradictory, yet Barnes manages to make it work. The Bray family is one of the wealthiest families on the planet, and yet she refuses to engage with them or work for them. Her father, however, was very much not a member of that class, as he was a miner. Ophelia has small but notable emotional triggers and flaws, such as wanting to please authority figures. This again brings up the contradictions—how did someone who wants to please authority so much rebel against her family?—but those contradictions are part of what makes us human.
The crew she joins absolutely does not want her there. It goes beyond a desire to get the job done, or even ignoring emotions. A bad psychiatric report can haunt any of them, and people on the lower end of the class stratification will struggle to come back from that far more than Dr. Ophelia Bray. What she views as help isn’t just embarrassing but possibly ruinous to them, and their reactions to her presence are very believable.
Of the other characters in Ghost Station, I found Birch the most compelling. He showed signs early of tightly-controlled rage and despised Ophelia, initially due to her role as psychiatrist but later for more personal reasons. He was never likable, but he was compelling. I also found Suresh interesting, because it’s rare to have a comic relief character who is in-universe an irritant who makes the situation more tense rather than less. The first of his pranks is quite cruel, even as Ophelia tries to pretend it’s just hazing and she needs to ignore it to maintain professionalism.
Things get worse when they reach an uninhabited planet that a previous crew had made its way to. It includes old, ruined alien structures. Aliens are known to have existed, and we are not the only sentient life in the universe, but they have all vanished long ago. Our time in space is extremely short in a cosmic sense.
The tension slowly yet consistently ramps up throughout. The terrifying events start out low-key, with reasonable explanations, and then become stranger until a drastic final act. The fact that we experience this through Ophelia’s limited viewpoint helps as we see her doubt her own senses throughout and we can’t say for certain what’s real and what isn’t. She shares her name with Hamlet’s love, after all, another woman famed for descending into mental illness.
Ghost Station is an excellent science fiction horror novel, with great characterization, a setting that veers into the uncanny, and a steadily mounting sense of tension. It’s all the more impactful due to Barnes’ use of the unreliable narrator.