(2020) Max Barry, Hodder & Stoughton, £16.99, hrdbk, 306pp, ISBN 978-1-529-35203-0
This is an honest to goodness piece of space opera, nicely written and with a good story.
It opens with a reminder of how, seven years ago, the situation arose. The science ship Coral Beach was studying bacterial growth in space when it came across aliens. As first contact situations go, this proved disastrous. The aliens, who soon got nicknamed salamanders, had a simple approach to other intelligent life - wipe it out. Although without weapons as such, the salamanders proved formidable as they have the ability to spit quark-gluons, essentially miniature, short-lived black holes, and anything within spitting range is torn apart by the intense gravitational forces. They do not need spacesuits and if enough of them get close enough (literally spitting distance, which is a lot further in space) then even the mightiest of ships will be shredded.
The military of Earth retaliated but during the battle at Fornina Sirius they were crushed. They learnt that the salamanders are hive creatures with no thought of self; they will hurl themselves at an enemy time and time again, suffering huge losses, but slowly learning what works and what does not. The destruction of so many ships and the deaths of thousands of personnel was devastating to the people of Earth yet peace was not an option - it was a war that could only end with the annihilation of one species by the other.
And so they built the Providence class of battleships. Hugely expensive, three miles long and a touch over one million tons, they were almost solid machinery (drives, shields, sensors, and armaments), controlled by the most advanced Artificial Intelligence yet created, and requiring only four crew members.
We join the crew of the fifth ship, which they simply refer to as the Providence, as they board for the first time and start their four year mission to find and destroy as many salamanders as they can. A military AI has chosen the crew from the thousands who have volunteered and undergone rigorous training for the war. Quite what the AI was looking for and how it came to its crew decision is unknown but AIs crunch a lot of data and try to predict every eventuality, so the blend of personalities and abilities might make little sense to ordinary people. The captain is Jolene, the only one with real combat experience and one of the few to survive the battle at Fornina Sirius. Her crew consists of Anders, the Weapons Officer, with Gilly as Intel and Talia as the Life Officer.
The ship’s AI analyses vast quantities of data and makes all the decisions: where to find the enemy, how to go there, and all the tactics during the battles; it does not even talk to them, ever. In fact, it does everything; all the crew really do is monitor screens and report to each other so there is no real point in them being there. The purpose of the crew is simply PR, to reassure the folks back home. They make videos of day-to-day life, the battles, and anything else that will keep up moral at home and justify the vast cost of this most essential of wars to a sceptical public. Although the captain brings discipline to the crew, it is the Life Officer who holds them all together, even though they think of her simply as the vain one who films herself all the time.
Then, over two years into their mission, they receive unexpected orders - to proceed into the Violet Zone, into the heart of salamander territory. There will be no beacons and relays, there will be no news or calls back home - they will be completely on their own for the next six months. Furthermore, once in the VZ, the Providence really gets its teeth stuck into the war and nothing but nothing is going to stop it. With an almost endless ability to repair itself whilst suffering increasing damages as the enemy refines its attacks, the crew wonder if they will ever get home. Indeed, as the battles get bigger and bigger and the enemy tries newer and ever more effective tactics, it looks like the crew may well fall to pieces. Although it appears throughout, and ever more so to them themselves, that they are pointless in a fully automated ship that can effortlessly outthink them in every possible way, the crew will ultimately come into their own - the AI that chose them knew what it was looking for.
As with most stories it follows events through the characters, with each chapter concentrating on an individual as we get to know more about him/her and see things from his/her perspective. It is all woven together very nicely and the pace remains even throughout. The story kicks into action from the first page and builds up to a satisfying ending that works well.
The pages turned effortlessly and I found it a most enjoyable read. The author has written five previous novels, including Lexicon which won an Aurealis Award, and this novel leaves me tempted to try some of those others.
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