Saturday 25 June 2016

This Alien Shore, by C. S. Friedman

I have to confess that I had never heard of C S Friedman until this book was selected as one of the monthly reads of the Classic Science Fiction discussion group ( . On checking her website I see that she has published a dozen novels so far, starting in 1986, most of them being grouped in series. This Alien Shore, published in 1998, is one of her stand-alone stories.

The story is set in a complex far future in which humanity's first attempt to reach the stars caused massive, permanent and inheritable genetic damage to the crews, resulting in a wide range of different human Variants being created. In panic, Earth closed down instellar travel, abandoning numerous Variant colonies to their fates and earning their hatred in consequence. Much later one Variant culture, the Guera, develops a specialised sub-type able to cope with the sanity-wrecking and highly dangerous method of hyperspace travel called the ainniq – a space populated by hostile monsters known as the sana. Spacecraft can only access the ainniq via nodes in space, so cultures grow up in vast artificial habitats close to the nodes, made by stripping planets of their resources. The Outspace pilots form a Guild which maintains a monopoly on space travel, and the Earth humans are reluctantly tolerated in the new interstellar culture which develops.

Jamisia Shido is a young woman living in a habitat in orbit around the Earth. She is looked after by the habitat government following an accident which killed her parents and left her psychologically damaged, hearing voices inside her head. She escapes when the habitat is attacked, and is horrified to discover that the attack had been aimed at seizing her. Something had been done to her – something to do with the bioware inside her head – which powerful forces believed gave her the potential to navigate the ainniq, breaking the Guild monopoly.

In a separate plot thread, the Guild is seen to be facing other problems; a highly sophisticated computer virus has been released which attacks the bioware of the Outspace pilots, killing them and threatening interstellar travel. A legendary Gueran programming expert, Masada, is recruited to hunt for the source of the virus and find a way of destroying it. His search takes him to Paradise, a vast artificial habitat, where expert freelance hackers have also been studying the virus.

Meanwhile the frightened and confused Jamisia has also turned up in Paradise after various adventures, still pursued by unidentified enemies. The voices in her head have developed into a dozen very different personalities who occasionally fight for control of her body; notably Raven, a tech expert and pilot; and Katlyn, a seductress able to spin her way into any man's affections (the descriptions of the subtle ways in which she achieves this being amusing and all too convincing!).

Ultimately the two main plot threads combine as the tale accelerates towards a rather rushed  finale, my main criticism being that the guilty virus designer is flagged up a little too obviously before the revelation, although that doesn't spoil the enjoyment.

This is a long story which contains many intriguing elements, particularly the nature of the Gueran society and their strange face-painting symbolism indicating status and personality types. It has something of the flavour of Dune in its depiction of a far-future civilisation, albeit without Herbert's staggering and baroque inventiveness. Hard SF combined with good characterisation and an engaging heroine, This Alien Shore is well worth reading and I have added the author's name to my approved purchase list.

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