(2015) Brenda Cooper, Pyr, £13.99 / Can$19 / $18.00, pbk, 329pp, ISBN 978-1-633-88050-4
Edge of Dark is a science fiction story and book one of 'The Glittering Edge' series. It is filled with surprises and with several fascinating aspects.
The events follow a group of ordinary people who will unexpectedly play a central role in defining the future of their entire civilization. The nature-loving ranger Charlie falls in love with the famous young socialite Nona in Lym, a wild planet still healing from over-exploration of its resources. Chrystal, Yi, Jason and Katherine are a family of biologists in a peripheral space station who find themselves captured and completely transformed by the Next, a group that was exiled to the periphery of the solar system for their unlimited development of robots and artificial intelligence. The Next, having been exiled for many years into the dark, resource-poor edge of the star system, return to confront the civilization in the rich planets and stations living close to the star. Saying they simply want a share of the resources, the Next’s threatening methods and violent historical background suggest otherwise, and the leaders and general population in the inner systems are understandably cautious. Adding to their concerns, the Next seem to have developed technologically far beyond the level of the core society.
All these players come together in the Edge of Dark but, interestingly, their actions are hard to predict. Although the human leaders of the Diamond Deep (the biggest and most influential station in the Glittering, the core civilization) seem to group together against the invaders, and the Next seem united in their quest for resources, nothing is as simple as it seems, and several small details cast a shadow on the reader’s ability to predict what will happen next. Central to this unpredictability is love.
Love and romance have a central part in the events unfolding, although the nature of the relationships being described is thought-provoking to say the least. While the polygamous family of four biologists gives us a curious glimpse on future or alternative societies and family structures, it is the human–machine interaction that I find most intriguing. By describing how some of the Next came to exist, we are left with no choice but to label them as robots. But what if the only discernible difference between a machine and a human is the ‘material’ each one was made of? What if machines could feel, remember, evolve and make decisions like any human? What if machines could feel love and loss? Without losing herself in technicalities about artificial intelligence and computation, Brenda Cooper tests the boundaries of what may be considered a human being, and what divides artificial intelligence from traditional or biological intelligence. While this question is not original by any means, I was particularly surprised by how the author initially lets our biases guide us in a completely wrong direction, only to make us realize how strong and constraining those biases are.
The existence of the Next also triggers thoughts of whether they could be the next step in human evolution. This line of thought is discussed in the book extensively from the perspective of Chrystal, human-turned-Next. The Next go as far as to offer to ‘transform’ any human volunteers into beings on a higher evolutionary step, but that transformation is not without ill consequences, which are extensively exposed by Chrystal. The reaction to the Next offer by the Glittering society is interesting, and I found particularly intriguing how there are two names for the Next, the alternative being Ice Pirates. Whereas the origin for the latter name is clear – and due to their attacks on convoys to acquire resources – I wonder why so many humans, particularly the leaders in the Glittering, choose to call them Next?
One warning to technology geeks: this is not a book filled with technological details or futuristic gadgets. It contains some elements of future space travel, and has interesting concepts of massive space stations dedicated to whole societies or other outposts for biological research, but technical explanations are scarce or nonexistent, making some aspects of the story feel less substantial to me. The focus of the book is clearly on social aspects—technology seems to merely serve to contextualize events and is not there to awe.
Edge of Dark, as a first book in the 'Glittering Edge' series, sets the stage for what will surely be a clash of civilizations. But it is the changes in the protagonists’ preconceptions – and in our own – that will be the heart of this series.
João H. Duarte
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