Anya Ow’s 2022 Ion Curtain is a space opera.
The setting is centuries in the future, but the conflicts facing humanity are depressingly familiar.
- One side: the Chinese-dominated UN, a large, diverse polity whose common feature might be described as “chaos.”
- The other side: the Russian-dominated Federation, which provides its citizens with carefully curated news, firm guidance, and a plethora of political functionaries. True power is doled out behind the scenes in ruthless, endless competition between the Federation’s various factions.
War would serve nobody; however, endless rumours of war ensure that military contractors can thrive. Military funding runs in ratchetting cycles: one side improves its standing and the other side reacts.
As the Federation is about to discover, some creations are inherently destabilizing.
Solitaire is an intelligence agent turned freebooter. When his starship Now You See Me happens across the hulk of a Federation warship, Farthest Shore. Solitaire sees the chance for quick salvage. That’s foiled by the appearance of Federation Commander Viktor Kulagin’s perfectly functional warship and Kulagin’s pointed death threats should Solitaire’s crew attempt to salvage the very curious device at the heart of the derelict. The threats only confirm the value of the device. Solitaire flees with the mysterious thingie safely stowed on board. As one does.
Counter-Admiral Kasparov’s estranged daughter died with the rest of the Farthest Shore. He is highly motivated to discover what mishap befell that ship. Senior officers do not as a rule carry out field ops. Conveniently for Kasparov, he has the perfect candidate to handle the matter in his stead.
Aide-Lieutenant Kalina Sokolova is astonished and alarmed when the Counter-Admiral reveals that he has known all along that she is a UN Jinyiwei mole. Her assignment was to monitor the Counter-Admiral, with assassination as a possibility if necessary. Kasparov has a new mission for her: if Sokolova does not want to discover what happens to exposed UN spies, she will investigate the Farthest Shore matter.
Farthest Shore died thanks to a stunning Russian break-through in the field of artificial intelligence. Unable to create AIs from scratch, the Russians resorted to copying human minds. Perhaps pure AI could have been confined by hard-coded directives. The minds crewing a selection of Russian ships have their own goals and a predilection for utter ruthlessness. Russian crews slain by the ambitious entities are merely the first casualties in a war of which neither the UN nor Federation are as yet fully aware.
How is it I’ve got this far without learning cover artist John Harris’ name?
The author has a quirk which kept kicking me out of the story. The narrative keeps referencing galaxies — first wave galaxies, nearby galaxies — in a story whose scale seems to barely encompass the nearer Milky Way. This does not feel like a story that spans trillions of stars and one is left wondering if the narrative would not have been served better by replacing galaxies with stars .
The UN doesn’t seem that bad, as space governments go. This may be because most of the action happens in the Federation and in the unaffiliated regions bordering the UN and Russian systems. In fact, one could probably drop a modern person into the UN of tomorrow and they’d be able to function with fairly minimal briefing. It’s a sad thing that “not that bad” puts this UN well above most SFnal galactic governments.
The Russians on the other hand are fairly stock futuristic authoritarians, albeit of the competing-factions variety as opposed to the great-leader-issuing-decrees sort. It’s even sadder that while one would not want to live under Federation rule, the Federation also isn’t that bad compared to some other SF governments one could mention.
Cons: shuffling stock elements doesn’t really work for me anymore. The problem with the setting (too many galaxies) kept yanking me out of the narrative. Not my thing.
Pros: if you’re looking for an energetically presented array of stock elements — the rogue with a past, the mole in over their heads, pesky Russians, galactic war, AIs that really needed their moral rheostats tuned for goodness — this may be what you are looking for.
1: There’s also some dodgy orbital dynamics,