This Alien Shore

by C.S. Friedman

Cover image

Publisher: DAW
Copyright: 1998
Printing: July 1999
ISBN: 0-88677-799-2
Format: Mass market
Pages: 564

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Jamisia is an orphan taken in by the Shido corporation, but she has a fairly comfortable and happy life in Shido Station. She lives in the care of her tutor, has friends, has something that feels like a relatively normal life. Then the station is attacked and destroyed by a rival corporation and she barely escapes in a one-person lifeboat, sent inexplicably by her tutor with a fake identity to rendezvous with a spaceship heading for the up-and-out. That begins a long and quite confusing flight away from everything she's known, and a discovery that her life is far more complicated than she thought.

Meanwhile, far from the backwater of corporate tyranny that Earth has become, a new computer virus is wreaking havoc on Guild outpilots. The Guild navigate the ainniq: a sort of subspace that allows ships to slip between nodes without regard to distance. This is the only acceptable method of interstellar travel now that humans know that the more conventional Hausman Drive causes massive genetic mutations, and only Guerans have the secret of navigating it safely. But a virus of a sophistication no one has seen before appears to be targeting outpilot brains through their implants.

This Alien Shore is told in two threads but multiple characters and viewpoints. Jamisia (yes, I stumbled over that name the entire book) spends nearly the whole book running while discovering that her head is a very complicated place for very bad reasons. Meanwhile, various other people (most notably the careful and meticulous Kio Masada) are analyzing and tracing the virus, which is of deep concern to the powers that be in the Guaran-controlled network of human colonies. The threads do come together eventually, helped by a young and much more impulsive hacker named Phoenix who is also on the trail of the virus, but it takes much longer than I expected. The book is a bit of cyberpunk, a bit of space opera, and is stuffed to the brim with world-building ideas.

There's always something that feels slightly emotionally off about C.S. Friedman novels. Her characters are a bit too intense, a bit too full of primary colors and inherent natures. They don't do a lot of changing; they're just a little too much purely themselves to feel quite accurate. Sometimes it matters and sometimes it doesn't. This is one of the books where it mostly doesn't, partly because it's full of such an amazing variety of characters, and partly because Friedman does a great job adding situational complexity by playing them off of each other and showing them through each other's eyes.

Pyschological realism, though, this isn't, nor would I look to Friedman for that. That's somewhat unfortunate given how central psychology is to this book. The focus that slowly emerges from this novel is the whole-hearted embrace of psychological difference as a force for creativity, power, and perspective. Acceptance, respect for, and integration of difference borders on a religious belief for Guerans, which makes this book one of the most wholeheartedly inclusive stories (at least for psychology) I've read. I loved that message enough to overlook the fact that those psychological differences are not treated with much subtlety.

The most central of the differences (a very mild spoiler, but one that's essentially given away on the back cover and that is easy to guess early in the book) is multiple personalities. Sadly, I thought that was also the least successful. Friedman treats the topic respectfully and as a difficult asset, which I liked, but it's bog-standard fictional multiple personalities. The presentation owes much more to popular fiction than to the reality of disassociative identity, and the notes that Friedman hits (and the characteristics that the multiples embody) are predictable.

However, her second major psychological idea is simply brilliant. The Guerans have developed a coding system for people to communicate their psychological profile to anyone who sees them, and all of the Gueran characters in the novel actively engage with that system and make extensive use of it. Friedman hints at a great deal of subtlety: a wealth of primary patterns (many of which are described in quite enjoyable animal metaphors as chapter epigraphs), secondary patterns that can be layered underneath, and a complex interaction of base patterns and patterns for daily mood. Here, I think Friedman's mild tendency towards archetypal characters helps, since it makes the psychological coding system clearer for the reader. I wish it had been more central to the story and explained further, although I can see the risk of turning the novel into an RPG sourcebook. (Although, now that I mention it, I would love to read an RPG sourcebook for this universe.)

The other point for which I have to give Friedman huge credit is that at least half of the book is about a computer virus, the analysis of that virus, and the hacking culture of her future universe, and at no point during the story did I want to start throwing things. There are no completely unbelievable magic computer programs, the sense of movement of data and virtual presence through computer networks seemed vaguely plausible and less steeped in unrealistic VR metaphors, the sense of aesthetics of code is captured remarkably well for a story of this sort, and Friedman even brings some variety to her computer-savvy characters. There are a few mildly stereotyped young hackers (although even those have a tendency to have more depth than the stereotype), but Friedman also populates her electronic world with the other types you rarely see in these novels: thoughtful, brilliant, but meticulous researchers, competent technicians who don't engage as much on the aesthetic aspects, and even moderately-intelligent users who pay attention to the computers their lives are built around. I could actually believe in both these people and the software they use with only the suspension of disbelief required for any future SF.

That's not to say there are no flaws, quibbles, or places where computers probably won't ever work that way. But that's part of what makes me so impressed. Friedman is still using computers and hacking in the direct service of a fairly typical SF plot to achieve specific dramatic ends and to create a mystery. She's not building the story around actual technology; she's staying fairly close to the sort of technology and plots that a lot of cyberpunk and hacking novels have. And yet she manages not to make the computing entirely stupid or unbelievable. It's existence proof that an SF author can pay attention to experts and research without compromising the story they want to tell. I want to take this book and smack Robert Sawyer upside the head with it.

This is a great idea book with a heavily computer-driven plot strand that I quite enjoyed. It is, however, not without its flaws. The virus-hunting part of the plot is significantly more interesting than Jamisia's flight, particularly given that she keeps running, and running, and running, encountering various people who seem important and end up not being important at all. It takes more than half the book before anything particularly interesting happens to her; up until then, I was dragging myself through her segments so that I could get back to Masada and the other Guerans. She's also annoyingly dim about some things. I figured out what the deep secret in her brain was within the first four or five chapters (it's entirely obvious from the political structure of Friedman's universe), and I have no idea why it took everyone else so long to figure it out. There is also, as mentioned, the slightly off feeling of the characters that I find typical of Friedman, and a cut-throat power struggle at the heart of the book that just didn't have enough psychological believability to fully engage me.

But the ideas are wonderful: technology-driven political structures, corporate-controlled states, ideological clashes, lots of believable cultural interactions, and a neat two-option interstellar travel system (even if the nature of the Hausman Drive damage bears no resemblence to any genetic science known to our reality). And that's on top of a wonderful visual language of psychology and discussions of computer security that I actually enjoyed reading.

Friedman's the sort of author who won't be to everyone's tastes. You have to have some tolerance for her tendency to write grand clashes of power between highly flawed, aggressively emotional people. Sometimes you have to put up with rather a lot of setup. But I really liked this novel. I suspect I'm editing out a lot of the boring bits in my memory, but I fondly remember that edited version as a ton of fun.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2013-06-27

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21