This Alien Shore by Celia Friedman

This Alien Shore book cover
Rating 8.2/10
Me, Myself and the Ainniq

Celia Friedman’s Coldfire trilogy was recommended to me by a friend in 2015, I liked them, even if I did find their romantic elements a bit overblown. Not long after that my entire life was full of overblown romantic elements thanks to that same friend; who is now my wife, so it’s rather interesting returning to Friedman now once again on her recommendation. Either because I obviously feel differently about overblown romantic elements these days, or because The Alien Shore is very different to the Coldfire trilogy, I enjoyed it a great deal more.

Nobody could have imagined how interstellar colonisation could change the human race. When it was discovered that the Hausman drive caused genetic damage resulting in a frighteningly wide array of variations on the human norm, Earth’s policy was to close its borders and abandon the fledgling colonies and their now alien inhabitants in order try and keep the Terran race pure. Now however, two centuries later the inhabitants of planet Guera, Hausman variations marked by startlingly different mental processes, have discovered a new method of interstellar travel using the Ainniq; faster than light conduits into another universe. The Ainniq also makes possible the outernet, a galaxy spanning information network so complex it is almost alive. Through communications and travel the Guran guild seeks to reunite all the disparate worlds of humanity; including Earth. The guild’s monopoly is under threat however, a computer virus dubbed Lucifer has begun striking down the Guild’s Outpilots, the only individuals whose unique mental configuration allows them to navigate the Ainniq safely. One primary candidate for the source of this virus is Earth, still a backwater of corporate intrigue and racial bigotry. Even as the guild summon the meticulous data expert Doctor Kio Masada to help them analyse Lucifer, the various guild masters start their jockeying for position and political advantage.

Meanwhile, in near Earth orbit, sixteen year old Jamisia’s quiet life on Shido habitat is suddenly interrupted by a violent corporate raid. Forced to flee the collapsing habitat, Jamisia is astonished to discover that the Raiders were in fact seeking her. Jamisia had always considered herself normal, despite the voices in her head and her occasional time lapses, but as she flees her relentless pursuers, Jamisia must learn of the other souls who share her brain, and slowly come to understand just who and what she is.

As you will gather from the above summary, one of the most truly unique things about This Alien Shore is the world in which it takes place. As I noted with the Coldfire trilogy, Friedman is never afraid to get fully immersed into another culture and here she has a whole galaxy to deal with. The level of detail here, from styles of clothing to the increasingly wide number of variations is astounding, in particular, I loved the way Friedman, despite introducing such grand political plotlines was not afraid to depict her world in close ups too, from the wide array of Hausman variants passed in station corridors, to advertisements, speeches, and even what preoccupied internet hackers might have for breakfast.

Two particularly noteworthy aspects of the world, are the Gueran culture and the way Friedman deal’s with technology. Among Guerans, not only are mental problems such as lack of ability to process sight or work involuntary muscles treated as standard, but also everyone has a Kaja; a mental pattern denoted by a system of black lines painted on the face. Guerans regard these Kajas as almost like separate species or subgroups, for all that people could blend or change their Kaja at will. Masada for example is an Iru, a Kaja characterised by emotional control and introversion which might correspond to modern definitions of Asperger’s or Autism, and he notes that the Nantana Kaja, a Kaja characterised by extraversion and social subtlety is one he has trouble in dealing with. As well as the Kajas we meet in the book, Friedman also gives us beautifully described animalistic depictions of other Kajas taken from an outworlder’s guide to Guera which are as poetic as they are intriguing.

A major theme in This Alien Shore is technology and hacking, with analyses of computer viruses, exploration of the Outernet, and even everyday use of computer networks depicted in ways that are anything but dry. In Friedman’s world, everyone has brainware, biotech implants which allow direct interfacing with computers and with the outernet, and allow people to for example see icons in the real world which can be used to activate code, or receive warnings from a wellseeker, a system for monitoring a person’s own biology. Some of these details, from personal icons, to the chaotic nature of the outernet, the need to prevent against viruses and even the clubby, reputation obsessed hacker culture showed a frightening level of prescience, especially for a book written in 1998, others, such as the idea of viruses that could be uploaded to a person’s brain just by a person looking at them were wonderfully nasty.

The book has been called cyberpunk, and though I can see similarities to William Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy, especially in the depiction of hazardous hacking, Friedman’s descriptions of technology were far more realistically grounded than Gibson’s, though not without a sense of poetry and rhythm of their own, indeed I don’t think I’ve ever encountered another writer who can describe computer processes involving familiar elements like files, menus and icons, and yet make the process quite mysterious in its own way.

My only minor issue with the book’s technology, is with its one blind character, the indolent guild master Sonandra Ra. Following a speech about how sight was the most important sense and so all direct net access through brainware had to be done through icons and text menus, Friedman gives us absolutely no idea how Ra navigates the net without sight despite the Gueran cultures concern with differences. Indeed, though the description of Ra perceiving the world through jewel like sensors embedded in her skin is wonderfully exotic (especially for such an openly sensual character), we have no real idea how those sensors work, online or off it.

Speaking of exotic, perhaps it is the lack of fantasy archetypes, but Friedman’s style here was for the most part very much the right side of poetic. Though I did find the repeated discussions of “souls” slightly jarring in a mostly non-spiritual culture. The one occasion when Friedman really does push the boat out in terms of heavy descriptive, almost mythological elements, it’s definitely well deserved and served only to heighten the atmosphere of a particularly otherworldly environment.

The major problems with This Alien Shore involve characters and pacing. The plot concerning the Lucifer virus and the political machinations of the guild is necessarily a slow one, and while on the one hand this gives us the chance to see a lot of the world, on the other Friedman often dots around viewpoints so much that it’s hard to gather which characters are or are not significant. Masada, a careful, almost obsessive data expert grieving for his lost wife is both appealingly flawed and fascinating, however many of the guild’s masters, despite rather fulsome introductions, enter the narrative simply to show they might or might not be up to something, and then leave it. Indeed, the constant new introductions of characters in this strand of the novel made matters feel far more sluggish than they might have done, particularly since Friedman often includes apparently significant happenings (including two instances of pretty unpleasant torture and murder), then doesn’t show a payoff, or at least doesn’t move the plot forward, except when the plot deals with Masada or the young hacker Phoenix.

Speaking of Phoenix however, Friedman did a great job here, showing a complex mix of arrogance, vulnerability and concern for reputation which anyone the least bit familiar with small tech communities will recognize, yet at the same time not turning Phoenix into either a stereotypical nerd, nor a universally cool proto wizard.

Jamisia’s half of the novel however was largely less successful. While my opinion of tiny, slender, gentle ladies has definitely changed since Narilka irritated me in Crown of Shadows, at the same time, Jamisia’s gentleness felt more like passivity.

As the book began, its reasonable to expect Jamisia to be running scared, unsure of whom to trust and feeling generally out of her depth. The problem however, is this is how she remained throughout the entire novel, despite spending at least three years on the run. Part of this might have been deliberate, after all we learn rather quickly that Jamisia has alternative personalities, personalities which I fully well expected her to integrate with and learn from throughout the story. Unfortunately, Jamisia didn’t seem to learn anything, and mostly just let her alts bully her. What made this worse is those alts who might have helped Jamisia become a little more self-reliant, such as the rationalist Vorina or the technical Raven were the ones we saw least. The alts we heard from most were the self-pitying zusu, the aggressively masculine Deric and the promiscuous Catelin.

Deric’s perspective was bad enough, an over-the-top testosterone machine so replete with references to his “masculine pride” or disparaging remarks about “you girls”, or “this weak female body”, that I wondered if Friedman had confused Jung’s idea of the shadow with the one from the 1930’s American pulp superhero.

Catelin however is if anything even more irritating, a manipulative schema who uses sex to get what she wants; frequently more sex. Friedman is of course too good an author to turn the book into the tale of Catelin bed-hopping her way around the galaxy, however I was disheartened by just how often in the plot she sees sex as the way to get out of every difficulty, and how Jamisia docilely goes along with this.

Hitchhiking on a spaceship and not sure whom to trust? Just seduce a crew member. Need to disguise? Well wear clothes so revealing everyone (women apparently included), will look only at Jamisia’s figure and not at her face. Aside from Catelin’s cynical discourses about how all men are basic slot machines where sex goes in and advantage comes out, the most awful instance of this plot occurred when Jamisia ran into Phoenix. From Phoenix perspective, the attraction to a lost waiflike girl with a mysterious secret and the desire to take care of her might have actually been rather sweet, particularly since there is at least a hint that Phoenix can spot the difference between Catelin’s overt sexuality and Jamisia’s more tentative manner. However, Catelin’s blatant manipulation here was downright sickening, as well as full of sexist romantic clichés. The section in which Phoenix returns home to his cluttered apartment to find that Catelin /Jamisia has cleaned it and prepared him dinner, a section which culminates in the befuddled hacker sinking into a chair and the girl massaging his shoulders before taking him off to bed was definitely a facepalm moment.

Of course, had Friedman written these sequences slightly differently, with Jamisia really being a scared and vulnerable girl with no money or resources who sees sexual wiles as her only recourse, rather than simply manipulating others into seeing her that way, I, (probably along with Phoenix and the other nice guys of this universe), would likely feel differently about her. Similarly, I wish at some point Jamisia had actually objected to Catelin’s scheming or even admitted her own feelings towards Phoenix or some of the other men she gets briefly involved with, indeed in this sense Jamisia felt just as self-serving as Catelin.

Despite starting with a bang, Jamisia’s plot also runs just as slowly and contains just as many new introductions as the plot surrounding the Lucifer virus, with Jamisia constantly running into characters who seem significant, and then moving on.

Matters do pick up four hours or so before the end when characters actually start meeting up with each other, and while at the thirteen hour mark of a seventeen hour novel, this is a trifle late in coming I was glad when it did.

Some aspects of the ending are delivered exceptionally well, others felt a little off. There was a lot of build up to the origin of the Lucifer virus and the identity of its creator, however when this identity was revealed I did not feel quite the sense of betrayal I should’ve done, mostly because both betrayer and betrayee were people we’d just not spent enough time with to care about.

While the revelation of Jamisia’s actual past (something which most readers likely would guess anyway), was delivered extremely well, it did feel a bit convenient that this revelation happened to happen at a point when that past would be significant, especially since Jamisia’s only contribution to the virus plotline was to have met phoenix and be hanging around him while he was investigating, placing her into a position where her sudden new insight would be of help. Since the action resulting from said insight also involved Jamisia essentially just going along for the ride rather than taking any action herself, Jamisia felt just as frustratingly passive during the ending as at the beginning, particularly since any possible relation between her and Phoenix (the only two characters in the book who actually spend any significant time with each other), was simply ignored. In the end, we didn’t even have a perspective from Jamisia, just another character telling us what decision had been made about her future, seemingly without her input, despite her supposedly being an adult at this point.

In many ways, the ending feels more that of the first novel of a series than a standalone. A plot is foiled, one principle character comes to an understanding about themselves and is sent off to learn more and grow up. The problem is, almost all the characters, and the galaxy at large remain much as we find them afterwards. This makes This Alien Shore feel more like a slow travelogue interspersed with a set of vignettes than a novel.

Then again, the world those vignettes are setting is a truly fascinating one, the characters involved are highly vivid, and on the few occasions those vignettes do link up to tell a coherent story, what happens is genuinely intriguing, even if we discount the oversexed and slightly cliched Catelin.

This Alien Shore is both amazingly good, and quite frustrating. Those looking for complex plot, drama and evolving characters might be disappointed, but those who can appreciate exploration of fascinating alien worlds, from the inside of the brain of a confused girl with multiple personalities, to the cluttered landscapes of a vast computer network, to the bright and terrible world of the Ainniq will find this a truly fantastic voyage.

This This Alien Shore book review was written by

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