By Mike Glyer: The social media of the 30th century doesn’t seem so different: teenagers anonymously perform acts of civil disobedience and vandalism to score points and raise their ranking in an internet app. That’s where Aster Vale leads a secret life as the Wildflower, a street artist and tagger, in A Star Named Vega by Benjamin J. Roberts, a Self-Published Science Fiction competition finalist.
However, much else is different a thousand years from now. Humanity lives in a post-scarcity space society that has settled planets around the Thirteen Suns, each under the protective maternal guidance of its own artificial intelligence. The colonization plan worked almost perfectly, with one exception, sent to a world that changed disastrously for the worse by the time humans arrived. Rel Akepri is a young soldier from that broken planet, a Skaird genetically engineered for war. And if the small team of experienced fighters he belongs to don’t complete their mission, then genocide will be their people’s fate.
Aster’s father joins a mysterious research project, requiring them to travel from Sol to the Vega System. He also has to bring along 13-year-old genius hacker Isaac who has been spared from a jail term so he can apply his skills to the research.
Aster sees their luxury starcruiser as just another canvas to explore. Isaac is willing to run interference with ship’s security. But the ship is the Skaird team’s first stop because they need the briefing information that was shared with members of the research project.
How can a couple of sheltered teenagers possibly make a difference? The first time around the answer is – they can’t. But the question will crop up repeatedly as the story progresses, and as time goes by the answer changes to – they can make a great deal of difference, indeed.
A Star Named Vega hooks the reader with characters to care about and complex worldbuilding that inspires deeper thinking. What’s more, it seemed that every time I found myself asking why a cultural or technological element didn’t quite seem to fit, the next scene would reconcile everything. I began to wonder if it was really a case that the author had subtly orchestrated my curiosity, rather than me spotting a deficiency that needed correction.
For example, when we’re first introduced to Rel Akepri and his people they look radically alien in appearance but their psychology seems entirely human. I skeptically wondered if this was one more example of the trend where aliens are nothing more than humans with extra bumps on their heads – despite the Skairds’ physical appearance differing much more from humans than does your average Star Trek race.
But then we get a whole info dump to explain they’re fully human though they also have a bunch of genetic modifications that let them live in extreme environments – their home planet, or in space for that matter. In the end I was willing to handwave the biology, yet I still wondered where the energy came from that let these bodies perform all the operations they can do.
There’s also a rich discussion to be had about the interaction in the 30th century of human and artificial intelligence. In another info dump – also structured as a lecture delivered in a course Aster is taking – we find out what the culture of the 30th century thinks about it.
“There are three classes of artificial intelligence we use for basic understanding…. The first class describes entities that have been programmed to exhibit intelligent behavior, such as sprites, servobots, and Enforcement units. While they may seem lifelike, entities of the first class are not self-aware. The second class of AI describes neural emulations – computer models of real-world organic nervous systems, including those of humans. As human emulations do possess self-awareness, and thus human rights, their creation is carefully regulated by the Matron Seed of any given planetary system. We know human emulations as Seed Units, and often they choose to inhabit android bodyshells for interacting with the physical world. The third class of AI describes the Seed Mothers. Not programmed. Not emulated. Their minds emerge from the chains of quantum networks like patterns in the swirling of leaves, fractals in the complex plane.”
This hierarchy also dictates what become the rules of engagement for violent acts. Pranksters and criminals alike can trash Enforcement units like insurrectionists did the Capitol Police but without thinking of it as murder. In contrast, harming human beings would be a serious crime. And yet there is a troubling loose end to this rule which is meant to keep the entire second class from being treated the same as mere ‘bots. When an android who’s also a family friend is destroyed during the raid on the ‘cruiser, his body is torn apart so his physical memory can be taken. But the ethos of android bodies having uploaded and backed up records of their consciousness makes it possible for the character to reappear shortly after in a new physical shell — and strangely exhibiting no mental wear and tear. How would a sapient being not be traumatized by that experience? Well, perhaps if he is not being backed up in realtime he would have no recollection of being killed. As a reader I certainly found it disconcerting how little everyone who knew him was affected by what appeared a violent death.
The raid on the cruiser does not keep Aster’s father from reaching his destination and going to work on the mysterious project. Meanwhile Rel Akepri’s commander pieces together the stolen information so they can intercept the discovery they fear will be used to kill all Skairds. And Aster keeps up her lecture attendance so we readers can eavesdrop on those good long info dumps. What’s more, one of the students in Aster’s class is conveniently a jock who’s stridently in favor of killing all the Skairds, creating another source of insight on the racial justice / genocide conflict that is one of the book’s main themes.
This conflict, like Aster’s tagging and Isaac’s hacking, show that living without scarcity under the watchful eye of a powerful AI has not bred out humanity’s rebellious impulses. Why not? The reason, says one wise soul, is that humans spent thousands of years evolving to survive in a dangerous environment; for only a fraction of the time in the past few centuries have they lived in safety with plentiful resources. They’re simply unable to stop taking risks.
And when it comes to Aster’s teenage rebellion, nothing really interferes with it because Dr. Vale is like one of those 40s radio comedy fathers whose reputation as a serious disciplinarian is belied by the fact that everyone can get around him and bend him to accept their latest predicament. However, if she’d actually been shut down and obeyed all her father’s cautions she’d never have made the friends she needs to rally around when crisis arrives and the people she knows are the only ones who can avert the genocidal doom about to be meted out to the Skairds.
As I read this book I would think about what was holding me back from enjoying the story more — then whoosh! I’d be emotionally caught up in an action scene and really caring about the characters. Even though something would eventually pump the brakes and partly throw me out of the story, I thought those really good stretches were priceless. A riveting action sequence draws the story to a climax. Sometimes an author is able to suspend disbelief until the book ends, then looking back I find myself asking did the denoument make sense? I will say there’s no doubt that the way the story was tied up is faithful to the characters. It was emotionally strong. It was right for Aster, Rel, Isaac, her father, everyone. It stuck the landing.
SPSFC art by Tithi Luadthong. Logos designed by Scott (@book_invasion)