At the Speed of Light

Yes, it’s another review of a “new” book – you know, the whole reason people give me books to review.

Simon Morden is a name only appearing once here before – in the very first blog post. Impressed enough by his “Never, Never, Three Times Never”, I kept his name in mind. So, when NewCon Press was offering review copies of this, I asked for one.

Review: At the Speed of Light, Simon Morden, 2017.

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Cover by Chris Moore

You wake up to a voice telling you repeatedly to “Get up”. Your body is covered with a green gel. Well, maybe it’s not your body. It has no hair. It has no genitals.

You get up. Then the voice keeps repeating “Get dressed”. You stagger to a door with strange markings and into a room where a spacesuit awaits.

After dressing, the voice says “Prepare for reduced gravity”. And your body tries to reorient yourself to the room as your up and down shift about.

Your name is Corbyn. This is a recurring dream you tell your therapist.

Morden’s novel is divided into four parts with Corbyn’s conception of his place in the moral and physical universe shifting with each one as he discovers more truth and must decide how to act on it.

To say more would spoil the suspense in Morden’s story. It shifts between detailed hard science adventure and vague cultural extrapolation, but the surprising combination works in what, for all practical purposes, is a tale with only Corbyn on stage but his acts potentially significant on a cosmic and human scale.

A quick and engaging read.

Spoilers and Additional Thoughts

Corbyn is, in fact, not a person but an artificial intelligence managing a ramjet starship hurtling through the universe at a substantial fraction of the speed of light.

However, Morden injects an interesting technological surmise. Corbyn the artificial intelligence enters sort a sort of trance for about ten years, a peculiar side effect of monitoring the data from his instruments.

When he wakes up that series of dreams, which eventually ends with him rescuing people from hibernation sleep in another ship, he finds that another starship is pacing his. Which is pretty improbable, in the vastness of space, that there just happens to be another starship near his at the same time and traveling the same rate.

It’s not a coincidence, and it turns out that, as Corbyn’s starship travelled near an alien world, its inhabitants built a starship to meet him to, of all things, settle a political dispute. Corbyn’s dreams were the attempt by a member of that “alien” crew who to download Corbyn’s consciousness into one of the alien ship’s maintenance mannequins.

That crew member, an historian named PuhLeeDah, is descended from human stock. Humans spread into space ahead of Corbyn’s ship, aided by new technology which folds space to travel through the universe.

Power blocs formed on PuhLeeDah’s world based on the ideological question as to whether communicating with Corbyn, and the “anachronistic” human culture he was a product of, was worthwhile. That escalated into war, and a starship was sent to chase after Corbyn’s ship.

But, however advanced PuhLeeDah’s ship is, it’s ablating under the collisions that occur even in the thin matter of space. Corbyn has to decide whether or not to risk his ship to rescue her – and what to do about the secretly cached, in hibernation, crew members on the ship that represent a power bloc in opposition to PuhLeeDah’s.

The descriptions of PuhLeeDah’s culture and the war that almost destroyed it are pretty vague compared to the detailed descriptions of the technical problems of Corbyn’s rescue of the alien ship and PuhLeeDah.

Yet, it works in telling a story about an intelligence who finds he has unknown limitations, unexpected discretion in his orders, who loses one purpose and finds another. In that last, in reminded me of the two individuals “Never, Never, Three Times Never” finding a new purpose in a broken world. Corbyn and PuhLeeDah end the story doing just that at story’s end.

 

Additional reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

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