2019’s The Outside is Ada Hoffmann’s debut SF novel.
Praise to the Gods of the galaxy, who brought us out of Old Earth.
Praise to the Gods of the warp drive, who push at the edges of space.
Praise to the Gods of the portal, who open all doors to our bodies.
Praise to the Gods of the ansible, who open all doors to our words.
Praise, praise be to the Gods who know, whose minds are above human minds, whose knowledge has kept us alive.
Once artificial intelligences, now something much more, the gods rule the human-occupied sector of the Milky Way. Having the gods consume their souls after death is a small price to pay for access to the stars. Despite centuries of such benevolent guidance, some humans still persist in trying to develop their own advanced technologies without divine help.
Yasira Shien is the Shien in the Talirr-Shien Effect, the phenomenon at the heart of the Pride of Jai. If all works to plan, the Talsirr-Shien Reactor will power an orbiting research facility for centuries to come.
If all does not go according to plan, well … who knows?
The bosses dismiss Yasira’s inarticulate qualms about activating the reactor. The physics of the process seems solid; the small-scale prototype reactor worked perfectly. Too bad that Yasira is autistic and can’t wield the social tools that might persuade when logic fails. True, it is odd that Yasira’s mentor Talsirr has vanished, but that must be irrelevant. Too much money has been poured into the Pride of Jai for last-minute jitters to abort the activation.
Yasira survives the ensuing calamity, as does her lover Tiv. Dozens of their friends and co-workers are not so lucky. They are consumed by the indescribable, mind-shredding event that destroys the Pride of Jai.
Yasira has been puffed as the genius behind the Pride of Jai; she’s the obvious scapegoat for the disaster. Yasira would have to face the wrath of her fellow citizens were it not that she has been nabbed by agents for a higher power: a god. Nemesis is the god who tracks down and punishes heretics and other miscreants. Ripping holes in reality (per the Talsirr-Shien Reactor) is pretty clearly heresy.
In the normal course of affairs, Yasira would be killed, her soul consumed and then punished, endlessly, for her part in the destruction of the space station. But the fact that she has survived the mind-shredding effects of her mentor Talsirr’s device makes her valuable. Outbreaks of extradimensional chaos have plagued the human sector of the galaxy ever since Talsirr vanished. Talsirr must still be alive, eluding the gods. Yasira may be able to help them track down her rogue mentor and stop the outbreaks.
The gods versus a madwoman determined to break reality, with Yasira trapped between them. At stake: the lives of Yasira and her lover, the existence of her homeworld, perhaps reality itself.
The exact nature of the gods and souls described in this book is open to question (by which I mean that any human who asks those questions will likely be tortured for as long as it takes the gods to get bored). The gods appear to be artificial intelligences who scavenge something useful from human minds. They have enough power to keep their domesticated humans in line, as well as the power to deny humans any tech that might allow humans to create new AIs. Implements of power: brainwashing, disappearances, torture, murder, bombardment from orbit. All glossed over by a made-up religion enforced by once-human cyborgs (who are also subject to torture and death if they don’t please their divine rulers).
In their defense, it must be noted that the ruling gods do try to keep their happy meals happy. They are kinder than the outcast god Keres, who was fine with open slavery. Now Keres hovers on the fringe of the galaxy and occasionally invades and kills humans in job lots.
The gods also try to stamp out heresy, that is, traffic with the forces of the Outside. Heresy leads to ripping holes in reality, which (as we see in the beginning of the novel) does not turn out well for any humans in the vicinity1.
The Outside is one part Laundry-style (or Lovecraft-style) cosmic horror (thinking wrong thoughts can doom entire worlds) to one part Zindell-style AI-derived gods. I had some sympathy for the protagonist but problems with the worldbuilding (like what are these souls and why the gods aren’t better at their jobs) kept distracting me. Not my cup of tea, although it might be yours.
1: Is calling horrors from the Dungeon Dimensions something only humans can do? Or can any intelligent species (we’re introduced to two in this book) do this? If so, how is it that the Outside hasn’t already destroyed reality? Odds seem stacked in its favor.