S. B. Divya’s 2023 Meru is a stand-alone science fiction novel whose publication date I only just noticed. ARCs (Advanced Review Copies) — the perks of being a reviewer.
The Constructed Democracy of Sol provides stratified equality to all in accordance with their capacity, with constructs and human-derived cyborgs (Alloys) at the top and bumbling humans somewhat lower down the scale. For the last five centuries, humans have been assisted by their superior cousins to embrace appropriate roles — Earth-bound, limited in numbers, and unambitious — but now a new discovery may change that.
Exo-planets are hardly rare but until now, all of the known worlds have been such that a baseline human would perish without significant technological assistance. Meru may be an exception, a world where humans could survive, even prosper. Should they be allowed to do so? Human history suggests not.
Centuries ago, hubristic humans despoiled the Earth and Mars in their misguided efforts to expand without limit. In the wake of the inevitable calamities, the Alloys stepped in. Since then, baseline humans have been guided towards sustainable numbers and appropriate technology. Not wishing a repeat of Mars, humans are strongly discouraged — some might say forbidden — from leaving the Earth.
Some visionaries (or, depending on political leanings, deranged extremists) believe that humans have learned from their experiences. Conservative Alloys think that is quite improbable. Meru will serve as a test bed: a single human will be transported there to document conditions. If they succeed in their mission without violating guidelines, then perhaps further human presence could be considered. If they fail, oh well.
Jayanthi, adopted human child of two Alloys, is selected for the mission. Although eager to serve the greater good, her ambitions have a personal element: Jayanthi has sickle-cell anemia, a deleterious condition on Earth but one that may prove advantageous on Meru. Accordingly, she is highly motivated to succeed.
Two unforeseen events greatly complicate the mission:
- Jayanthi and Vaha, the Alloy who transports the human to Meru, fall in love. That alone would be somewhat transgressive but to compound matters, they decide for reasons that make sense to them to have a child mid-mission. On the one hand, bringing a pregnancy to term will certainly prove Meru is habitable by humans. On the other, it is just the sort of mission drift that led to calamity five centuries ago.
- Conservative Alloy Pushkara has great faith that Jayanthi will fuck up somehow. On the slender chance that she doesn’t, Pushkara has suborned Kaliyu, the Alloy assigned orbital duty over Meru. Should Jayanthi appear on the verge of success, Kaliyu will sabotage the project.
Failure appears certain but even the most pessimistic Alloy could not predict what does happen.
As far as I can tell, the Constructed Democracy really is a democracy. However, humans are strongly encouraged by convention and education to follow Alloy leads; those who deviate from proper behavior are consistently outvoted by their Alloy cousins. The system is set up so that it’s very difficult for humans to stray outside their designated roles: Jayanthi fails a genetic engineering test because not only is she not cleared for the information needed to pass the test, the gap in her knowledge is not revealed to her until she fails.
Public policy in this novel is shaped by The Principles of Conscious Beings, which are:
- All matter possesses some level of consciousness.
- All forms of consciousness have equal value in the universe.
- Possession of consciousness is necessary but not sufficient for life-forms.
- A Being is a structure with sufficient consciousness that it has the ability to reshape matter.
- An Evolved Being is a Being that is also a life-form.
- All Beings should minimize harm to other forms of consciousness, with priority given to other Beings.
The Alloys and Constructs take this very seriously. To be honest, I cannot see how they reconcile those six points with the implied industrial activity needed to sustain a galactic scale civilization. Or why they would create such a civilization. In fact, even basic existence seems to violate the six points, as even Alloys on standby mode consume some resources. The most efficient way to comply would seem to be to not exist at all1.
While this is in many ways a conventional SF novel, there are aspects of the setting that will astound and perhaps even alarm readers. The CDS possessed a legal system, an enforcement system, and courts. Breaking the law—more delicate readers may wish to look away—is, when detected, subjected to judicial overview and when appropriate, punishment. This is true not just for the antagonists but the protagonists as well.For reasons that are unclear to me, the author has imagined a justice system that does its best to be evenhanded in judgment2,
- even when the lawbreakers sincerely meant well,
- or were inflamed by irresistible passion when they did that which was clearly illegal,
- or even when they did whatever was easiest (not breaking the law would have been inconvenient).
I am OK with plot-enabling fantasy like faster-than-light drives but surely this is over the line?
Readers of a romantic bent may find the romance touching, particularly the extremes to which the lovers go to find each other when calamity separates them. For my part, it seems like a workplace romance, which are generally bad ideas even when the fate of humanity does not rest on the outcome of the project. But then, it may well be that Jayanthi and Vaha were selected because they were likely to screw up.
Aside from the bizarre stance that the law applies to all equally, this was a diverting adventure novel I wish I’d left until closer to the publication date. Whoops.
1: I freely admit it’s this sort of thinking that took kindergarten-age me from these instructions
- I may walk home by myself
- I may not talk to strangers
- I may not cross streets alone
to circling on the block my school was on, looking for the implied route that avoided crossing the half dozen or so streets between me and home. After many hours, the police were dispatched to find me.
2: Despite which Alloys and humans break the law and exploit loopholes frequently and enthusiastically. Consequently, the actual off-world human population is much higher than Alloys would prefer it to be.
Pulling zany pranks on constructs might well succeed in convincing the machines to tolerate dubious behavior. However, it is also a good way for a naked human to discover what an airlock looks like from space.