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Emily Devenport, Medusa Uploaded (Tor, 2018, 320pp, £13.56) [import only] and Nicky Drayden, Temper (Harper Voyager, 2018, 400pp, £9.99)

Reviewed by Jeremy Brett (Texas A&M University)

 

Emily Devenport’s space opera, expanded from her 2015 Clarkesworld novella ‘The Servant’, and the first novel in her Medusa Cycle, is a gracefully written and approachable addition to the far future subgenre. A generation ship, the Olympia, travels through a distant area of space, carrying some 300,000 people aboard. Once accompanied by a sister ship, the Titania, which was mysteriously destroyed several years before the novel’s opening, now it sails on alone, governed by an oppressive and exploitative upper caste of Executives. The Executives – a group of aristocratic families who fight amongst themselves for supremacy – rule Olympia and its lower classes (at the lowest level are the ‘worms’) through fear and force. Until one day a rogue element is introduced – Oichi Angelis, the daughter of two quiet social revolutionaries who were killed in the explosion that destroyed Titania.

Oichi introduces herself to the reader in the most intriguing of circumstances, by announcing herself as a mass murderer and serial killer. No unhinged monster, Oichi is, rather, surgically striking against selected Executives as part of a grand plan to undermine the existing tyrannical social order that infects Olympia and sees Oichi and her fellow worms as objects to be used rather than fellow human beings. The novel’s prologue is a thing of beauty, laying out in the style of a thriller the immediate and intriguingly vague terms of Oichi’s motives and operating principles. As she notes: ‘These people don’t just have power, they are power, and what they command becomes law. But after all – they’re just people. And a worm can get into just about anything. Killing isn’t even my main tool in this work. If there’s such a thing as a situational drunk, who can stop drinking once her troubles are over, then maybe you could call me a situational killer. Either way, I’m relentless.’

Oichi is also that most enigmatic of narrators, the self-confessed unreliable one: ‘But if truth is what you’re after, don’t look for it in the things a killer tells you. It’s what she doesn’t tell you that matters.’ It’s an appropriate comment for her to make, since Devenport’s novel, like many mysteries and police procedurals, is rife with conspiracy and untruths, ranging from simple lies exchanged between individuals to the grand lie that surrounds the Olympia herself and her interstellar voyage. Underneath the decadent shininess of the vast ship is a system of objectification and dehumanization built on deception and unearned privilege (as well as physical and sexual abuse). Medusa Uploaded, among other things, follows in the great tradition of social science fiction in offering a futuristic lens through which to observe our own societal inequities and injustices.

Olympia is a ship of bottomless enigmas, but Oichi is assisted in her detective/killer work by one of those very enigmas – Medusa, one of a hidden army of centuries-old mobile AI units designed to interface with human partners. One of the most emotionally resonant facets of the novel is the development of a true intimacy between Oichi and her tentacled partner in crime. The imprinted connection between the Medusa units and their wearers provides lovely little moments that provide some warm light within a dark and disturbing mystery:

 

Terry looked at his unit. She rose from her corner and drew closer. At first, she moved like a mechanical puppet. Then he established his link with her, and her eyes became aware. Her face filled with a wonder that matched his.

<You are Terry Charmayne,> she said. <Who am I?>.

He glanced at me, and I nodded. <Give her a name.>

<Kumiko,> he said. <Because she’s the one who opened my eyes.>

<I am Kumiko,> said his unit. <Because you are the one who opened mine.>

 

For the time being, Devenport withholds the ultimate answers to a number of the questions she raises. However, that does not make the novel any less satisfying, whether as a mystery-thriller or as a far future epic. Read as the former, the book focuses as much on deep character development as on the plot, making the solutions to the puzzle only a part of a larger dramatic whole. Read as the latter, Medusa Uploaded is a welcome addition to a subgenre that, at its best, demonstrates how much of the essence of the human condition remains constant, even in the face of countless centuries of technological and societal change.

Nicky Drayden’s new novel is as equally compelling as her debut, The Prey of Gods (2017), but introduces a singular experience in complex worldbuilding. Temper is set in a country that bears resemblances to many in our real-life urbanized Africa, a society underpinned by the existence of twins. In fact, twins are so common as to be the rule rather than the exception, and twins are linked by a peculiar phenomenon: in Drayden’s world there are seven cardinal sins (one of these being, yes, temper) that are shared between twins, and the influence and presence of sins in each twin are branded upon their bodies. Equivalent virtues complement the vices. The twin with fewer sins is the dominant of the pair and is guaranteed a better social status, life and career.

In Temper, the protagonist is Auben Mtuze, one of these lesser twins, who carries the mark of six vices and lives in the shadow of his more virtuous brother Kasim. Conflict arises when each brother begins to hear strange voices that drive him towards excesses of vice and virtue, voices that prove to be connected to the deepest and most intimate part of their society’s faith system. The novel deftly explores the ramifications of a highly stratified society that makes the marginalization of particular people a feature, and not a bug. Can there really be justice or opportunity in a world where something like half the population is destined from birth to inherit an inferior societal position? When the opportunity arises for the brothers to break this faith-mandated cycle, despite the chaos that results, the reader may well be relieved that this unjust state of affairs is at last broken. At least something is changing, and a new world is being born.

Temper, more than many novels I have read in recent memory, involves the betweenness, the liminal state of things. Auben and Kasim are caught between their ambitions and their imprinted social identities. Their world is caught between the fantastic and the real, where the two reside side by side. Science and religion are caught in a permanent state of tension, where the religious rule and science is labelled as false, heretical, and must be studied in secret. Every human – apart from the rare, pitied single-borns – is caught between the warring gulfs of Vice and Virtue. Several of Drayden’s characters exist fluidly between genders. A divinely transformed Auben is caught between his desire to try and do good for his people, and his flawed human nature. This is not to say that Temper is a simple Manichean story of the conflict of opposites; on the contrary, Drayden is careful to detail the many complexities of human and societal relationships. But baked into the narrative from the outset is the idea that divisions, especially those induced by some against others, are harmful, and that perhaps living in the moderate space between is the best for which we can strive.

Used as a verb, temper can also mean to bring something into a desired state through blending or admixture: it has a positive connotation, and is equally as valid as a choice of title. For Drayden’s novel aims to show that harsh societal cleavages are almost inevitably harmful, whereas by tempering both institutions and individuals with the qualities of others the resulting blend that exists between two irreconcilable parts is by far the more just and more equitable outcome. Separations are for gods, while tempering is for humans.