This Alien Shore
I’ve done it again! Yet another set of consecutive books covers the same theme. These always sneak up on me, either through carelessness, publisher deception, or blind luck. I had seen Friedman’s name bandied about and figured I should read something of hers, despite occasionally conflating her with C.S. Forrester in my addled brain. I was under the impression that she wrote mostly fantasy, so I picked up This Alien Shore expecting some similarity to The January Dancer or some other space opera written by a fantasy specialist. Instead, and to my great surprise, Shore asks the same sort of questions as the last book I read. I’ll leave this suspense unresolved for just a sentence longer to say that nobody is more surprised than I that Friedman’s book so neatly dovetails with none other than When Gravity Fails.
One might easily scoff. After all, Gravity is a cyberpunk classic with no apparent relation to a novel of the far future with some ambitions of Sharing a Message. But, just as Effinger challenged cyberpunk assumptions and pushed the boundaries of the genre, Friedman is taking cyberpunk as far from the slate gray skies of Chiba City as she can. More on the Message Sharing later. To review, and this is the last time I will mention Gravity, Effinger’s experiment was to remove much of what we assume is standard in cyberpunk, ie shiny computers, glittering neon cities, and disreputable hackers, and replace it with a North African slum. Relying on the noir underpinnings of cyberpunk, he daringly combined Raymond Chandler, Islam, neural implants, and a lot of drugs to create a book that is wholly unconventional, but an undisputed cyberpunk classic. Friedman? Something, as they say, completely different.
Shore makes no claim to being cyberpunk. Further, I doubt Friedman had any intention of writing cyberpunk, but I can’t look at it as anything but. Consider: The book is actually two concurrent stories that meet towards the end of the book, but are not required by any part of the plot to actually come together. Unlike numerous books where there is actually some hidden and shocking connection, or, say, The Club Dumas, where the lack of a connection is key to the entire story, Shore could actually be two separate books. The fact that Story #1 and Story #2 don’t actually need to intersect, and indeed don’t even influence each other, is not commented on. Setting aside story #1, the one described on the dust jacket, Story #2 is where my left field claim is made, because Story #2 is all about cyberspace.
It’s not called cyberspace, of course, because this is the far future. It is, however, all about a virus, a security expert and coder extraordinaire who tracks the virus, a hacker who chases down information from his own shadowy angle, and all sorts of cyberspace shenanigans that result from the grand pursuit. Despite the publisher implications of a rather different story, most of the book is spent looking at code, talking about code, writing code, or having an occasional High Noon Internet showdown. And yet a brief perusal of reviews (not scientific or comprehensive by any definition) turned up very little engagement with this part of the story. I suppose there are two reasons for this. First is the deep world building going on in conjunction with Story #1. Second, and more relevant for me, is that Friedman has gone in the opposite direction of Effinger. She has pulled the noir foundation and left the technology, rather like the magician who proclaims, “The hand is faster than the eye!” as he whips the tablecloth out from under the crystal dining set. Shore is almost unrecognizable as cyberpunk because those things we don’t realize are so important, the hard boiled seediness of it all, are missing. This begs the question of what it is that really defines the genre, if Effinger’s book is and Friedman’s isn’t.
But setting aside genre ruminations, Story #1 begs for attention. This is where most of the back story comes into play. Long ago, humanity sent out their first wave of galactic colonists, not realizing that the FTL of the time inflicted horrible genetic mutations on all involved. When Earth saw that its colonies were full of freakish mutants, they cut off all contact, withdrew to the Solar System, and left the colonies to rot. Much later on the planet Guera, where each mutation was accepted, categorized, and dealt with, a new FTL system was discovered. The only problem? Only one particular mutation could take ships through the wormhole-like objects safely, avoiding the soul-sucking creatures found inside. Warhammer 40,000 fans will feel right at home with the idea of insane pilots guiding their ships through a warp full of slavering monsters. The Guerans reopened the stars, though they maintain tight control over the means of transportation. They eventually made their way to Earth and allowed their ancestors back into the system, though much antagonism remains on both sides.
Into this world comes Jamisia Shido, who is schizophrenic and hunted because she may contain some mad secret within her multiple personalities. Jamisia is ostensibly the main character and the focal point of the story, even as much of the action centers around the completely unrelated virus storyline. Jamisia, however, allows the story to see more of Friedman’s world and permits The Message to rear its ugly head. Fortunately, and just as I was getting a sinking feeling in my gut, Friedman decided that while tolerance and whatnot are great, they don’t really need to be smashed repeatedly into the reader’s skull. I was much relieved when the author took a step back from the soapbox, even if I agree that we really should just be friends, even if that guy next to me has two heads and scales.
It doesn’t appear that Friedman has spent any more time in this universe, which is somewhat surprising. It seems ripe for exploitation, but perhaps the right idea has yet to present itself. I will read a follow-up if it ever appears, since this is a world I would enjoy spending more time in. This Alien Shore was plenty rewarding and interesting enough to keep me thinking, even if I wasn’t thinking about the same topic the author was.
Rating: FIFA’s admirable, but probably ineffective, campaign to rid football of racism. Good luck with that, FIFA.