Artifact Space

by Miles Cameron

Cover image

Series: Arcana Imperii #1
Publisher: Gollancz
Copyright: June 2021
ISBN: 1-4732-3262-7
Format: Kindle
Pages: 483

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Artifact Space is a military (mostly) science fiction novel, the first of an expected trilogy. Christian Cameron is a prolific author of historical fiction under that name, thrillers under the name Gordon Kent, and historical fantasy under the name Miles Cameron. This is his first science fiction novel.

Marca Nbaro is descended from one of the great spacefaring mercantile families, but it's not doing her much good. She is a ward of the Orphanage, the boarding school for orphaned children of the DHC, generous in theory and a hellhole in practice. Her dream to serve on one of the Greatships, the enormous interstellar vessels that form the backbone of the human trading network, has been blocked by the school authorities, a consequence of the low-grade war she's been fighting with them throughout her teenage years. But Marca is not a person to take no for an answer. Pawning her family crest gets her just enough money to hire a hacker to doctor her school records, adding the graduation she was denied and getting her aboard the Greatship Athens as a new Midshipper.

I don't read a lot of military science fiction, but there is one type of story that I love that military SF is uniquely well-suited to tell. It's not the combat or the tactics or the often-trite politics. It's the experience of the military as a system, a collective human endeavor.

One ideal of the military is that people come to it from all sorts of backgrounds, races, and social classes, and the military incorporates them all into a system built for a purpose. It doesn't matter who you are or what you did before: if you follow the rules, do your job, and become part of a collaboration larger than yourself, you have a place and people to watch your back whether or not they know you or like you. Obviously, like any ideal, many militaries don't live up to this, and there are many stories about those failures. But the story of that ideal, told well, is a genre I like a great deal and is hard to find elsewhere.

This sort of military story shares some features with found family, and it's not a coincidence that I also like found family stories. But found family still assumes that these people love you, or at least like you. For some protagonists, that's a tricky barrier both to cross and to believe one has crossed. The (admittedly idealized) military doesn't assume anyone likes you. It doesn't expect that you or anyone around you have the right feelings. It just expects you to do your job and work with other people who are doing their job. The requirements are more concrete, and thus in a way easier to believe in.

Artifact Space is one of those military science fiction stories. I was entirely unsurprised to see that the author is a former US Navy career officer.

The Greatships here are, technically, more of a merchant marine than a full-blown military. (The author noted in an interview that he based them on the merchant ships of Venice.) The weapons are used primarily for defense; the purpose of the Greatships is trade, and every crew member has a storage allotment in the immense cargo area that they're encouraged to use. The setting is in the far future, after a partial collapse and reconstruction of human society, in which humans have spread through interstellar space, settled habitable planets, and built immense orbital cities. The Athens is trading between multiple human settlements, but its true destination is far into the deep black: Tradepoint, where it can trade with the mysterious alien Starfish for xenoglas, a material that humans have tried and failed to reproduce and on which much of human construction now depends.

This is, to warn, one of those stories where the scrappy underdog of noble birth makes friends with everyone and is far more competent than anyone expects. The story shape is not going to surprise you, and you have to have considerable tolerance for it to enjoy this book. Marca is ridiculously, absurdly central to the plot for a new Middie. Sometimes this makes sense given her history; other times, she is in the middle of improbable accidents that felt forced by the author. Cameron doesn't entirely break normal career progression, but Marca is very special in a way that you only get to be as the protagonist of a novel.

That said, Cameron does some things with that story shape that I liked. Marca's hard-won survival skills are not weirdly well-suited for her new life aboard ship. To the contrary, she has to unlearn a lot of bad habits and let go of a lot of anxiety. I particularly liked her relationship with her more-privileged cabin mate, which at first seemed to only be a contrast between Thea's privilege and Marca's background, but turned into both of them learning from each other. There's a great mix of supporting characters, with a wide variety of interactions with Marca and a solid sense that all of the characters have their own lives and their own concerns that don't revolve around her.

There is, of course, a plot to go with this. I haven't talked about it much because I think the summaries of this book are a bit of a spoiler, but there are several layers of political intrigue, threats to the ship, an interesting AI, and a good hook in the alien xenoglas trade. Cameron does a deft job balancing the plot with Marca's training and her slow-developing sense of place in the ship (and fear about discovery of her background and hacking). The pacing is excellent, showing all the skill I'd expect from someone with a thriller background and over forty prior novels under his belt. Cameron portrays the tedious work of learning a role on a ship without boring the reader, which is a tricky balancing act.

I also like the setting: a richly multicultural future that felt like it included people from all of Earth, not just the white western parts. That includes a normalized androgyne third gender, which is the sort of thing you rarely see in military SF. Faster-than-light travel involves typical physics hand-waving, but the shape of the hand-waving is one I've not seen before and is a great excuse for copying the well-known property of oceangoing navies that longer ships can go faster.

(One tech grumble, though: while Cameron does eventually say that this is a known tactic and Marca didn't come up with anything novel, deploying spread sensors for greater resolution is sufficiently obvious it should be standard procedure, and shouldn't have warranted the character reactions it got.)

I thoroughly enjoyed this. Artifact Space is the best military SF that I've read in quite a while, at least back to John G. Hemry's JAG in space novels and probably better than those. It's going to strike some readers, with justification, as cliched, but the cliches are handled so well that I had only minor grumbling at a few absurd coincidences. Marca is a great character who is easy to care about. The plot was tense and satisfying, and the feeling of military structure, tradition, jargon, and ship pride was handled well. I had a very hard time putting this down and was sad when it ended.

If you're in the mood for that class of "learning how to be part of a collaborative structure" style of military SF, recommended.

Artifact Space reaches a somewhat satisfying conclusion, but leaves major plot elements unresolved. Followed by Deep Black, which doesn't have a release date at the time of this writing.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Reviewed: 2022-12-18

Last modified and spun 2022-12-19