Yudhanjaya Wijeratne’s 2020 The Salvage Crew is a standalone science fiction novel.
Centuries in the future, the United Nations (UN) and its rival, the Outer Reaches Colonial Association (ORCA), are busily spreading humanity and its creations across the nearer stars. The distances are formidable, the challenges of alien worlds more so. Truly, shaping human destiny is the work of heroes!
Unfortunately for Overseer AMBER ROSE 348 and its salvage team, the cost-conscious UN opted to go with the lowest bidder. Thus, Planetary Crusade Services got the contract to check an ancient crash site for salvage. Thus, AMBER ROSE finds itself headed to an alien world with a crew the AI would not have selected had it had any say in the matter.
The salvage team consists of:
- AMBER ROSE, an AI based on the mind of an aging human,
- Geologist Simon Joosten, whose horrific childhood trauma has never been properly addressed,
- Doctor Anna Agarwal, about whom AMBER ROSE knows nothing save that she is not Anna Agarwal, and
- Engineer Milo Kalik, who is exactly who and what he claims to be.
The mission begins sub-optimally, as the lander sets down fifty kilometres from the crash site the crew is supposed to salvage. As per standard operating procedure, the team sets out to build a secure base from which to operate. A wise decision, because as they soon discover, the local ecology features impressively large apex predators.
If this was not bad enough, the team discovers that they are not alone. Although it seems unlikely any colonists could have survived being dropped from orbit, there is an enigmatic structure not too far from the crash site. More alarmingly, there is an ORCA ship in orbit. It seems the UN’s rivals also have an interest in the crash site.
Like the UN, ORCA likes to use contractors, in this case MercerCorps. MercerCorps is staffed with eager transhumanists, each one crammed with enough hardware to convert them into a one-person army corps. AMBER ROSE is unenthusiastic about fending off heavy-armed cyborgs with the D‑Team under its command (especially since Fake Anna’s actual skillset is unknown). It has no choice in the matter.
First contact with a MercerCorps mercenary brings mixed news. On the plus side, something has gone very seriously wrong for the cyborgs. The cyborg is on the brink of death when AMBER ROSE’s team discovers them. The transhumanist is also questionably sane, which means the UN is left with no concrete information about what happened to the MercerCorps squad.
Can an AI and three squishy humans prevail where enhanced mercenaries failed? AMBER ROSE is not optimistic.
Not only is the name AMBER ROSE always spelled in all caps, everything the AI says is all caps. I choose to interpret this as the poor AI shouting at its unreliable minions. Because why wouldn’t it want to yell at the poor meatsacks?
Doing things badly because that’s the cheapest option is a running theme in the novel. The UN crew is affordable rather than elite. Rather than solving the problem of artificial intelligence, humans stopped trying as soon as they discovered how to map human minds into software (which not only confers immortality, but even more usefully from the UN perspective, transforms the useful humans into ownable IP). The UN/ORCA split happened because the UN is careless about the consequences of its policies on the little people on the various colony worlds.
The novel indulges in a habit all too common in SF: even though the book is set centuries in the future, it references 20th century works like The Forever War and The A‑Team, much as I might clarify current events with allusions to The Spanish Tragedy and The Battle of Alcazar .
Perhaps of more interest to modern readers, this also belongs to the tradition of snarky AIs forced to work with dumb humans. No doubt AMBER ROSE and MurderBot would find much to discuss.
Sometimes I want to read novels with space ships, exploration teams out of their depth, and lots of scientific mysteries. This book delivered what I wanted. I wouldn’t call it a gourmet experience, but it was a good meal.
I could not find it at Chapters-Indigo.
1: To be honest, this setting does not feel as distant from us as Jacobean England. The author is forced to set his story so far in the future because he is constrained by his decision to adhere to plausible physics: colonisation is sublight and that takes time.