Review of 23 Years on Fire by Joel Shepherd (Pyr, trade paperback, September 10, 2013)
This is the fourth Cassandra Kresnov novel.
Four years before the start of this novel, Sandy and Rhian had claimed asylum from the League on the planet Callay, the new Federation Grand Council location, a few years after the war between the League and the Federation ended. Since then about 50 GIs had arrived on Callay and asked for asylum there. GIs are synthetic biological people created in a lab by the League, but creating them broke the law, and it was concerns over the use of the technology used to create them which started the war. Using the technology to develop artificial brains on the order of humans was banned in the Federation with only very limited use of synthetic biological enhancements allowed for Federation military personnel. In the League use of the technology to provide uplink implants was extremely widespread.
Many of the GIs seeking asylum were the more intelligent higher designations who found jobs in the military or para-military with only a few non-combatant designations finding jobs in data processing or technology. Sandy, the GI with the highest designation of any who sought asylum, works for Callayan Security Agency (CSA) as a SWAT team leader and is seconded at times to the Federal Security Agency (FSA) which used to be the Callayan Defense Force (CDF).
The story starts with an FSA attack on the city of Anjula on the planet Pyeongwha. The locals had implemented neural cluster technology (NCT) after research into a native neural disease led to the discovery that the genome adjustments to remove the disease gave enhanced ability to assimilate the synthetic-organic NCT. The League had similar technology but the Federation had largely banned it. On Pyeongwha the NCT had led to increased productivity, ingenuity, and social harmony according to its proponents. The Pyeongwha government had elected to promote and later mandate certain functions. Soon non-NCT subscribers didn’t get into good schools or get good jobs and they were accused of pushing down ‘national competiveness’. Twenty-four years before those that caused ‘social disharmony’ started disappearing and escaping ‘subversives’ told horror stories. At that time the Federation Grand Council was very far away on Earth so they did nothing, but once the Federation moved to Callay and the war with the League was over, the Federation Grand Council started looking into the matter since it was directly related to the cause of the war.
Five years after the Federation Grand Council moved to Callay, the FSA is able to make a move because the rebels on Pyeongwha have taken over the Parliament network function and were holding buildings in the area so this met the threshold for intervention because triggering the civil uprising made the government lose control. Previously Federation inspectors had been refused entry into the NCT research center in Anjula, but the Pyeongwha government had insisted the center was run by above-board biotech companies. When Sandy penetrated the facility she found files showing all kinds of NCT research horrors including apparent mass murders of people that NCT did not work on in order to determine why they were ‘defective people’.
The unconnected rebels did not understand what was going on to change everyone connected to NCT to not think mass murder was wrong. NCT actively created consensus because the uplink technology worked like mass telepathy. The government was doing genetic tinkering and actively breeding out the non-NCT compliant as an economic and social measure. NCT connected people started to practice mass slaughter and did not see a problem with it because their value structure was consumed into the NCT network. To the unconnected, the rest of society had gone crazy and the government had been requiring everyone to connect and go crazy for twenty four years.
Turned out the NCT was much worse than League technology because League tech copied natural brain function so well that the brain didn’t view it as foreign and behaved like the tech was just another natural brain function to interact with and that did cause the brain to rewire itself to grow new pathways to cope with more network information flows that didn’t occur in nature. NCT told the brain how to rewire in ways League tech did not because the League tech was much more passive.
One question regarding the League technology which has not completely been explored yet is if synthetic biological implants used to enhance humans cause the brain to rewire to become more like the implant and less like the original brain, then will the line between enhanced humans and complete synthetic biological people (GIs) blur and eventually disappear? The self-improvements of both GIs like Sandy and enhanced humans like Vanessa are mentioned and explored but Vanessa’s scores put her at about 80% of a mid-level GI. When pushed to save her family she goes beyond that, so is she still an enhanced human or is she now a GI? Further exploration into this issue in later volumes could give some interesting insight into how enhancements could cause interesting discussions of what it means to be human.
After the battle on Pyeongwha Sandy has some interesting thoughts about the people she was fighting and about how it feels to be dumped by her non-synthetic boyfriend of four years. These thoughts are further complicated by the fact Rhian has married a non-synthetic and adopted children who think of Sandy as their aunt. At times she feels maternal toward them but doesn’t think she could do that and still have a military job, although Rhian seems to be coping with it just fine.
Sandy’s next assignment on New Torah puts her into situations where again these maternal instincts are fighting with her military mindset and she is confused because she sees herself as a non-emotional synthetic who shouldn’t have feelings, even if it is clear to the other characters (including other GIs) that isn’t her anymore. As happens on many assignments, Sandy ends up on her own in enemy territory. She knows there are rebel factions there but has no contact information except what she gathers locally. She ends up making new allies, including three local orphans and continues toward her objective. The information given to her by local GIs left behind after the League Federation War is so mind-blowing that it will cause the League and the Federation to look at GIs and synthetic biological implants in a whole new light, if Sandy and her allies can only get the info off the planet!
This is a science fiction adventure set in a gigantic universe with two large political groupings of planets across many solar systems. It’s focused on Cassandra Kresnov and her team which contains GIs and enhanced humans. They primarily do covert operations which can be a bit like an episode of Mission: Impossible, with a small group needing to destroy, rescue, or infiltrate for information on some objective. Their missions are not part of an open war and so are usually secret, and sometimes not even clearly identifiable as Federation Grand Council-backed until the mop-up crew arrives. The characters, particularly the different GIs, are very interesting and the whole universe seems to be having an ongoing look at what it means to be human. The synthetic biological technology actually seems to be a direction which makes sense with today’s forays into tissue engineering to make synthetic biological organs and replacement tissues and neuroscience research looking at ways to reconnect the brain signals to diseased or traumatized limbs and spinal cord. As Your Humble Reviewers own a medical device consulting business as their day job, this was a particularly interesting universe to explore and we think those readers who are also in biotech fields will find it just as fascinating. That being said, the tech is explained in simple enough terms that if you can use phone apps you should be able to get the tech explanations.
Any reader, who likes science fiction adventure, covert operations stories, or even hard science fiction, if you don’t mind your science being biomedical engineering, will enjoy this book.
Dragon Con Interview with author Joel Shepherd
Your Humble Reviewers caught up with Australian author Joel Shepherd between panels, and he was more than happy to pause for a chat.
Exploding Spaceship: For those who haven’t read the previous books, can you give a brief idea of what they cover?
Joel Shepherd: The first three volumes now out in mass market start about a year after the war between the League and the Federation. Sandy goes AWOL from her League position, then discovers the truth about what was happening to GIs under her command who went to a special rehab facility: they were being used as spare parts for GIs who were not as badly hurt. She destroys that place and finds her way to Callay with the help of sympathizers. Sandy ends up in the Callay Defense Force (CDF), which becomes the Federal Security Agency (FSA).
ES: Your synthetic biological people seem to have feelings and emotions, but they doubt this, always struggling with self-image. Poole playing the piano to try to inject emotional content is one example.
JS: I like to put my synthetic biological characters into situations which force them to ask “Who am I?” Poole plays the piano notes perfectly, but he doubts he can ever put enough emotional content into it. Even so, he continues to play.
ES: It’s interesting to see Sandy struggle to figure out how to respond to Danya, Svetlana and Kiril, the three children she encounters on New Torah. They want to be close to the new parent figure, but she wants to keep them safe. She doesn’t really have any good choices because all four of them are so stubborn.
JS: Yes. After having her be an aunt to the children who Rhian adopted, I though putting parentless children in [Sandy’s] path would cause her to look at the “Who am I” question in interesting ways.
ES: Where did the kids’ names come from?
JS: The names came from three siblings featured in a BBC documentary on Russian street kids, which was done right after the fall of the Soviet Union. The kids in the book share some personality elements with them, as well as their ages of thirteen, ten, and six.
ES: For a combat-designation GI, Sandy gets herself into many situations where her fighting is restricted; she really only gets to go all-out a couple of times in the story.
JS: Well, I like to put her in situations that she can’t solve with a bullet; it makes her grow as a character and shows that she has intelligence in addition to her combat skills.
ES: You added a journalist character, Justice Rosa, who is writing Sandy’s biography, and the title of that biography is also 23 Years on Fire. So, Sandy is twenty-three years old?
JS: Yes, as best she can tell. There aren’t any records available.
ES: What are you calling the next book?
JS: That book will be Operation Shield, and it has the same cover artist who did such a great job on 23 Years on Fire.