Patrick S. Tomlinson’s 2020 In the Black is the first volume in his projected Intersection Space series.
Peace has reigned between humans and the alien Xre for seventy years, ever since the end of the Intersection War. Now, as Captain Kamala of the Combined Corporate Defense Fleet Ansari is going to discover, the Xre appear to be interested in testing human resolve.
CCDF Ansari’s sensor drones are spread across the 82 Eridani system, ever vigilant for any sign of alien incursion. No threat to stakeholder interests will be overlooked. One might expect the end of the long peace to come in a flurry of fireworks. In this case, the first hint that something is up comes as silence. One by one, the sensor drones are falling quiet.
A single sensor buoy going dark might be mishap. A micrometeorite perhaps. Silence from two sensor drones is suspicious, particularly given that the second probe attempted to communicate in its last moments.
Although CCDF Ansari is seventeen years old, the ship has capabilities that the humans hope will surprise the Xre. One such system detects an enemy craft waiting just outside the line that marks the boundaries of the human space around 82 Eridani.
The Xre vessel Chusexx has some surprises of its own. Captain Derstu Thuk would like to astound the Ansari with them just before they destroy the human ship. But for now, they have orders that they must obey, however little they understand their ultimate purpose. For now the alien ship is engaged in a game of cat and mouse with the human ship, a game in which one craft’s sensors try to defeat the other’s counter-measures.
Light years away, businessman Tyson Abington is struggling with problems seemingly unrelated to Xre ambitions. A new and deadly disease in the Teegarden’s Star system and industrial espionage at home keep Tyson occupied. He has found troubling evidence that the outbreak in the Teegarden system was engineered and … his research into its origins appears to have displeased whoever or whatever engineered it. He’s under threat.
The game between Chusexx and Ansari ends abruptly when the alien ship suffers a catastrophic failure. The aliens appeal to the humans for help. Although it could be a trap, Captain Kamala offers what help her craft can.
In fact, the mishap was no mishap at all, just as the outbreak in Teegarden’s Star system was no natural event. The Ansari and Chusexx are expendable chess pieces in someone’s game. The destruction of either ship would have served the goals of whoever/whatever is behind these events. Rapprochement between two crews threatens those goals. Ansari’s inconvenient act of charity must be punished, preferably in a way that leaves no witnesses.
If the Tyson plot does not seem to have much to do with the Ansari plot, that’s because the two don’t join up until the very end of the novel.
It seems unlikely that two unrelated species would meet and find that their technologies are similarly advanced. But parity in tech is desirable if an SFF author wants to craft a thrilling plot. Some authors use synchronizing events to explain parity. This series appears take a different tack: with enough rolls of the dice, unlikely combinations can appear. The Xre have met at least one species that was more advanced than they are, thus they no longer own their former home system. They have met many technologically inferior species, all of whom graciously have ceded their territory to the Xre. Humans are the first species the Xre have encountered who enjoy technological parity.
An interesting detail mentioned in passing early on:
Indeed, the Ansari’s crew complement was sixty-four percent female, which was right in line with crew breakdowns in the rest of the fleet. The demands of long-duration deep space operations favored female recruits in a myriad of ways.
The author proceeds to list the ways. It’s not a short list, so it’s heartening that a third of their crews have managed to overcome their biological limitations and embark on space-based careers in the Combined Corporate Defense Fleet.
This is the second book I’ve recently read, in as many days, in which the unity one side ascribes to the other is non-existent.. The Xre see humans as a monolithic bloc. In fact, the UN and the several governments of Earth don’t take a close interest in the activities of the various interstellar corporations. No doubt the corporations would reject cooperation if it weren’t for the threat of the Xre; thus, the Combined Corporate Defense Fleet. Even on board the Ansari, the humans sometimes work at cross purposes, although it all must look very regimented to Thuk, who is constantly provided with ample feedback from his crewmates.
The cover copy promises that this book is another Hunt for Red October; I may run with that for an upcoming Tor piece. I do see parallels:
- the two commanders, one alien and one human (one American, one Soviet) trying to guess what the other is thinking;
- the solution is cooperation, not destroying each other.
Of course, me being me, what this novel first brought to mind was the venerable GDW space war game Star Cruiser
which was once described as hide and seek with bazookas. It helped that the game’s setting is the region of interstellar space surrounding the Solar System. One could use GDW’s star map1 to follow the action. Well, except for the stars of which we were unaware when Star Cruiser and its associated products first came out, of which there are not a few.
Unlike the folks at GDW, Tomlinson is clearly familiar with our old friend, Atomic Rockets2, so he puts a lot more work into convincing the reader that the starships in his setting could somehow hide from each other in the depths of space, despite generating more energy than entire industrial nations of the recent past. Only a complete grinch would fail to buy into Tomlinson’s world of hi-tech stealth, especially if said grinch didn’t say a word about the setting’s faster-than-light drives, also sadly unlikely to ever be physical reality3.
It’s all good MilSF fun; despite the marked disadvantage that the plot is about building bridges between human and alien ships. There’s some entertaining hide and seek, an epic space battle, and a number of utterly obliterated vessels. There is just one drawback: this is Book One of Books More than One. I’ll have to wait at least year to see how all this plays out.
1: Or SPI’s Universe’s map, for that matter.
2: Atomic Rockets website was down when my editor checked it; hope this is a temporary blip. [added later] It was.
3: Tomlinson’s ships use Alcubierre drives, which have two important plot-relevant properties. Firstly, anything moving faster than light is cut off from the universe and utterly undetectable (it’s also blind to the rest of the universe). Secondly, creating an FTL bubble of space-time creates some impressive tidal forces, which means ships can shred nearby ships with their FTL drives. Deliberately arriving from FTL next to another ship is very, very impolite.