Barbary Station

by R.E. Stearns

Cover image

Series: Barbary Station #1
Publisher: Saga
Copyright: October 2017
ISBN: 1-4814-7688-2
Format: Kindle
Pages: 448

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Adda and Iridian are newly-graduated engineers who, as the book opens, are hijacking a colony ship to deliver it to a notorious group of pirates. Adda is the computer expert: dyed hair, neural implants, and the sort of high-tech gear required to subsume computer systems. Iridian is a former soldier, a Shieldrunner to be specific. They graduated into an awful economy following a secessionist war between Earth and the outer system and have spent much of their adult lives trying to keep their heads above water financially. This is Adda's scheme to get them enough money to live comfortably and, more importantly, together: hijack a colony ship, eject the passengers, and deliver the rest to the most successful pirate gang in the system.

This plan goes surprisingly well right up to the point where they arrive at Barbary Station. There, they discover that the pirates everyone believes are living in luxury in a former ship-breaking station are, instead, prisoners in a cobbled-together emergency shelter attached to the side of a station they can't safely enter. The pirates don't control Barbary Station. A malicious AI does, and it's trying very hard to kill them.

You can tell that this book was written in 2017 by the fact that a college education in engineering is only financially useful as a stepping point to piracy and crime. I can't imagine an author more than 20 or 30 years ago writing about economically desperate STEM college graduates, and yet it now seems depressingly plausible.

James Nicoll's appreciation for this story was derailed early by the total lack of attention the main characters give to the hapless passengers of the colony ship who get abandoned in deep space. I'm forced to admit that I barely noticed that, probably because the story seemed to barely notice it. Adda and Iridian do show some care for ordinary civilians stuck in the line of fire later in the book, but they primarily see the world in terms of allies and opportunities rather than solidarity among the victims. To be fair to them, their future is a grim, corporate-controlled oligarchy that is entirely uninterested in teaching such luxuries as empathy.

Despite some interesting examination of AI systems and the interaction of logic between security and environmental controls, Barbary Station is not really about its world-building or science-fiction background. If you try to read it as that sort of book, you will probably be frustrated by unanswered, and even unasked, questions. The plot is more thriller than idea exploration: can the heroines make allies, subvert a malicious AI, figure out what really happened on the station, and stay alive long enough for any of the answers to matter? There are a lot of bloody fights, an escalating series of terrifying ways in which an AI can try to kill unwanted parasites, and the constant danger that their erstwhile allies will suddenly decide they've outlived their usefulness.

As long as what you want is a thriller, though, this is an enjoyable one, although not exceptional. It has the occasional writing problem that I'll attribute to first novel: I got very tired of the phrase "the cold and the dark," for example, and the set pieces in the crumbling decks of a badly damaged space station were less epic than I would have wished because I struggled to visualize them. But the tension builds satisfyingly, the sides and factions on the station are entertainingly complex, and the resolution of the AI plot was appropriately creepy and inhuman. This AI felt like a computer with complex programming, not like a human, and that's hard to pull off.

This is also a book in which one of the protagonists is a computer hacker, and I was never tempted to throw it at a wall. The computers acted basically like computers within the conceit of neural implants that force metaphorical mental models instead of code. For me, that's a high bar to meet.

What Barbary Station does best is show a mixed working partnership. On the surface, Adda and Iridian fall into the brains and brawn stereotypes, but Stearns takes their relationship much deeper than that. Adda is nervous, distant, skittish, and needs her time alone to concentrate. She's comfortable in her own space with her thoughts. Iridian may be the muscle, but she's also the gregarious and outgoing one who inspires trust and loves being around people. While Adda works out the parameters of the pirates' AI problem, Iridian is making friends, identifying grudges and suspicions, and figuring out how to cross faction boundaries. And Adda and Iridian know each other well, understand each other's strengths and weaknesses, and fill in each other's gaps with unconscious ease. Books with this type of partnership protagonist told in alternating viewpoints aren't unheard of, but they aren't common, and I think Stearns did it very well. (I did find myself wishing the chapters would advertise the protagonist of that chapter, though, particularly when picking this book up after a reading break.)

Barbary Station felt like what military SF could be if it were willing to consider more varied human motivations than duty and honor, allow lesbian partners as protagonists, and use suspicious criminals instead of military units as the organizational structure. It has a similar focus on the technical hardware, immediate survival problems, the dangers of space, physical feats of heroism, and navigating factions in violent, hierarchical organizations. Characterization gets deeper and more satisfying as the book goes on, and there are a few moments of human connection that I found surprisingly moving. It's not entirely the book I wanted, it takes a while to get going, and I don't think the world background quite hung together, but by the end of the book I was having a hard time putting it down.

If you're in the mood for a desperate fight against malicious automation in an abandoned deep space structure, and can tolerate some world-building gaps, repetitive wording, and some odd failures of empathy, you could definitely do worse.

This is a mostly self-contained story, but there were enough hooks for a sequel that I was unsurprised to see that it will be followed by Mutiny at Vesta.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2017-12-31

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