Read it in the '90s. YA novel starting in overpopulated, urban Earth. Young guy manages to get a berth or sneak onto a space ship set to explore potential planets for colonization, despite poor qualifications. He is educated in archaeology. There are scenes in the ship where he is interacting with onboard tech and working in a hydroponic garden with some Asian botanist/gardener.

He ends up helping explore some alien planet that was thought to be uninhabited, but he finds an alien cave and takes his video recording device that stores video on a 3D optical crystal, records and decodes alien runes, and determines there is something toxic? on the planet, perhaps toxic to aliens but ok for humans to settle down?

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I don't know how close it is, but this reminds me of Robert Silverberg's young adult novel Across a Billion Years (1969).

The hero, Tom Rice, is a graduate student of archeology, joining his first field expedition to investigate some precursor remains. He uses recording cubes to send "letters" to his sister back on Earth.

Of course, since he's the protagonist, he makes an important discovery of actual recordings of the precursors which lead the expedition on a hunt.

I don't recall anything about translating a message about a toxin, though.

  • I came across that while searching and after reading the plot and a preview, I can say that is not it. Different plot and totally different tone. The kid in my book wasn’t on a team and wasn’t supposed to make it on the ship originally, the book didn’t start with a letter, it started on earth, and people lived normal lifespans not hundreds of years (I don’t remember details about faster than life travel but I’m quite positive). There are plot parallels but the elements are different and I think my novel was probably written more recently. Jan 30, 2021 at 13:36

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