Stay with me here for a moment. The first modern science fiction book I read, many moons ago, was Frank Herbert’s Dune. I believe I read it after having an ex-boyfriend insist I watch the 1984 movie. Despite the movie’s flaws, I was hooked. The reason I bring up Dune is because of how well it has aged, perhaps becoming even more relevant now than it was when it released. The technology doesn’t date the book and its themes are eternal (at least within the scope of human existence).
C.S. Friedman’s This Alien Shore is another book that has aged well. It was originally released in 1998. Almost 20 years in a time when technology is exponentially advancing. I’ve read books written at the same time or even after, where the technology has dated the book (there’s nothing like reading a book about the future, especially the near future, that refers to ‘data tapes’).
I’m not 100% sure of this, but Friedman seems almost prophetic in This Alien Shore. Humans live among the stars, but the earliest who went into space “suffer” from genetic mutations, as do their descendants, and are known as Variants. However, these variants have discovered the ability to travel through space via Ainniqs, portions of space that function like wormholes. But therein lies the danger as other living things reside in Ainniqs – creatures that feed on human souls and only special inpilots can navigate them safely – at a price.
This timely and almost prophetic theme of prejudice the Variants experience by Earth and its “untainted” humans is woved throughout the book. Some Variants hate all Terrans because of the way their ancestors were treated once they mutated (due to the spaceship drive used during the first space age, where travel was slow and dangerous). Others, like the Guerans, have traveled back to Earth to invite the Terrans to join their fellow humans in the expanding galaxy now available to them. Terrans have followed but many are not happy and cannot stand the Variants, looking at them as less than human, as monsters.
Also, humans are wired into the datasphere. Most have implants surgically provided at birth. At one point, the hacker Phoenix is walking through one of the stations, reminiscing about teenagers using programs that overlay what they see in real life with fantasy images, everything from dragons to porn. Humans love data, love the datasphere which provides “viddie” entertainment. Also, the hardware also helps regulate bodily functions, providing warnings when the body is distressed and dispensing medication for everything from headaches to more severe illnesses and emergencies. How close are we to this? How many companies are working to get us there?
Technology aside, This Alien Shore tells a great story, which involves a young girl Jamisia on the run after her space station is attacked and destroyed. Jamisia hears voices – but is she crazy? Have these other personalities invaded her head in order to take over her body, or are they parts of her own fragmented psyche? These voices do not just speak to her. Different personalities have different skills and knowledge. Jamisia is being pursued – by Earth Corporations, by the Guild (run by the Variants, who have a monopoly on space ainniq travel) and who knows who else. They want what is in her head. The problem is Jamisia has no clue what is in her head.
She meets up with the hacker, also known as a moddie, Phoenix, who is trying to track down the source of a dangerous virus known as Lucifer that has killed several of his hacker friends, as well as inpilots who travel the dangerous ainniqs. Jamisia and Phoenix join forces with Dr. Kio Masada, a Gueran hired by the Guild Prima to find out who unleashed the Lucifer on the Guild pilots and why.
Intrigue, adventure, danger as well as a satisfying but by no means predictable, ending.
My one writerly nitpick – a lot of passive voice and filtering. Characters do a lot of telling and filtering (“she felt fear”). This can break the fiction spell slightly especially when something exciting is happening, but I feel like there’s a veil between the action and me. A small nitpick and as writing expectations have certainly tightened over the past 18 years, one I am not going to count against the book. I recently read a Hugo-winning book from the late 80s or early 90s, where this was a major problem; however, the storytelling was still fantastic. A good story with relatable characters makes up for a lot!