Melissa Scott’s 1996 Night Sky Mine is a stand-alone post-cyberpunk space opera.
Fearing pirates, miners flee their facility. This presents an opportunity for investigators Rangsay and Tarasov. It’s a doorway into a mystery they might be better off not investigating.
But first! Background exposition I could not figure out how to gracefully infodump.
Advances in computer technology facilitated by insufficiently well-thought-out computer code led to the Crash, as software transitioned from human artifact to entities that change and evolve outside human control. Humans no longer write programs. They select useful programs from the ecosystem of wildcode. This has risks as well as benefits and encourages a healthy sense of prudence where software is concerned.
Although the miners’ fear of pirates seems poorly supported by the facts, other mining facilities have been targeted by something. These miners are the first ones who survived and reached a place where they could be questioned.
Space pirates are a fact of life. However, Rangsay and Tarasov suspect that something else entirely may be at work. To determine what that is, they first need to examine the history of attacks for suggestive patterns. There is one: the attacks suggest something lurking at the epicenter of the attacks.
Thirteen years ago, a mining facility near the epicenter was attacked. There was a single survivor, a baby girl. No clue to her true identity could be found. Informally adopted by her rescuer, Kelly2, Ista Kelly is a stateless person whose status threatens to blight her future. Ista therefore is very curious about her origins and determined to accompany any mission to the mine.
On the plus side, Ista is an apprentice hypothecary, whose cyberspace skills could be useful. On the minus, she’s an immature teenager. On the even more minus side, even Ista’s skills might not be sufficient to deal with what waits for the undercover team.
I call this space opera even though I couldn’t get the details of how space travel works in this universe to cohere into a clear image. The novel’s setting does conform to many common SF tropes: interstellar settlement, powerful governments that decline to cooperate, a diverse assortment of cultures ditto (thus names, like Kelly2, not always conforming to current day formats), and the occasional lurking cosmic menace.
On top of those details, however, Scott adds a cyberpunk element. By the time the story is set, computer technology has progressed from artifact to ecosystem, making people like Ista less creators than skillful gardeners. Different groups have different coping mechanisms for the inherent risks involved in dealing with evolving software. Not all of those coping mechanisms involve risk reduction.
Scott isn’t the only author to venture down this path (see Vernor Vinge and David Zindell) but she is one of the few. For the most part, it seems like many space opera authors want to imagine futures like the past, but with spaceships. Hers is a messier future than most.
Although the pacing seems a bit off — the ending feels abrupt — and I questioned the risk assessment skills of the adults, this was an enjoyable read. The cast of characters is diverse by modern standards, let alone those of the 1990s; Ista in particular is well fleshed out and it is a shame that this novel did not get a sequel (as far as I can tell).
It’s even more unfortunate that the novel appears to have fallen out of print almost immediately. This is something I’ve noticed with other early Scott works: there weren’t that many printings or editions and even the few that were done were done decades ago.
As far as I can tell, Night Sky Mine is out of print in paper. Nor is this book available in e. In age when ebook reprints abound, this seems surprising.