After my engrossing first encounter with Kali Wallace’s previous book, Salvation Day, I had great expectations for her new novel and I’m happy to report they were all met, if not surpassed: the synopsis made me think about a delightfully tense SF movie from the ‘80s, Outland, and there were some similar vibes here, mostly due to the background in which the story takes place, although Dead Space moves in quite a different direction.
Hester used to be a gifted AI expert, part of a deep space expedition toward Titan, where the exploration of Saturn’s biggest satellite would be assisted by Vanguard, an evolved form of artificial intelligence capable of learning and adapting, Hester’s ultimate achievement. Unfortunately the Symposium, the science ship built for the mission, had been infiltrated by extremists who managed to sabotage it and kill most of the science team. Hester survived, although devastated both mentally and physically: the left side of her body is now mostly prosthetics, implanted by the doctors of Parthenope Enterprises, the corporation to which she is now in deep debt. To repay it, Hester has accepted to work as security analyst on the mining colony of Hygiea – a thankless, menial job that crushes her already defeated spirit and misuses her brilliant mind.
When one of her Symposium friends, another survivor of the disaster now working in a different mining outpost, is killed in mysterious circumstances shortly after having sent Hester a weird message, she joins the investigative team to discover what truly happened to her old colleague David and finds herself embroiled in a spiral of conflicting clues and unsettling revelations that is only the surface layer of a deeper, far more dangerous conspiracy, and she will need to rekindle all her old skills and determination if she wants to survive and avoid disaster on a massive scale.
Like Salvation Day, this novel offers a view of the future that’s far from comforting: the drive for space seems to have been taken over by big corporations whose sole purpose is to exploit the resources in the Solar System, gaining as much profit as possible with the minimum of expenditure in the areas of workers’ comfort or safety. It does not take much, as Wallace describes the mining outposts disseminated throughout the Belt, to compare this background with Earth’s mining towns of old, where the miners’ wages were spent almost entirely in company-owned shops and utilities, therefore creating a vicious circle of legalized indentured slavery. Hygiea and Nimue (the site of the investigation for David’s murder) represent this set-up in dreary relief, so that it’s easy to picture ill-lighted, barely maintained tunnels, none too clean, inhabited by a gloomy humanity whose sole, desperate goal is to beat the system of diminishing returns that keeps them tied to these balls of rock.
There is a claustrophobic quality to the story – which seems to be Kali Wallace’s skillful trademark – that works hand in hand with Hester’s despondent attitude, and even if she is not prone to self-pity, one can feel the quiet despair that has turned her once-brilliant personality into the sharp, cutting posture of someone who feels detached from humanity, sometimes even her own:
[…] didn’t stop people from looking at me and seeing only the metal.
It doesn’t take much, however, to bring her out of this self-imposed numbness: once the investigation into David’s murder starts and progresses from the first appearance of a personal attack from a co-worker to something more complex, and with far-reaching implications, once the dangers pile up and Hester’s life is threatened at every step of the way, she is finally able to wake up her old self, the one that was smothered by post-traumatic stress and the thankless job she has been trapped into. When the real Hester emerges, we are finally able to see the intelligent, intense person who dreamed of exploring a new world and dared to create something amazing and revolutionary as Vanguard, the person we see in the brief flashbacks before the Symposium disaster. What happens on Nimue, as ghastly and horrifying as it is, is the systemic shock she needs to finally process her grief and loss and reclaim the keen scientific mind that had propelled her in the past.
Even though Hester’s journey is front and center, there are a few other interesting characters peopling the story, starting from David – her murdered friend – whom we see in the flashbacks and through the descriptions of his coworkers on Nimue: like Hester, the before and after personalities are as different as day and night, stressing once more how the Symposium tragedy shattered these lives, not only through physical damage or because of the heavy debt incurred with medical expenses, but above all for the death of their dreams of advancing science, of learning the mysteries of the cosmos, of making a difference for humanity. It’s also worth mentioning the Nimue staff which, in pure whodunit style, share a common lack of reliability that enhances the sense of foreboding and danger that permeates the investigation from the very start.
And again, Hester’s partners in the investigative team are quite intriguing, particularly the unit’s leader Adisa, whose Martian origin constitutes a handicap: some time before the Mars settlers rebelled against their inhuman living conditions and the revolt was stamped out with ruthless efficiency, while the powers that be chose to lay the blame for the war on the hapless colonists, who are now the object of scorn and racial slurs. I was intrigued by these hints about the conflict, just as I was by the apparently self-effacing Adisa who, when push comes to shove, exhibits some very unexpected abilities, but unfortunately the pacing of the story did not allow more than a few, tantalizing glimpses, and that’s my only small disappointment with this novel because I wanted more and would not have minded a deeper digression into this particular topic.
Still, I thoroughly enjoyed the breathless, adrenaline-rich new story that Kali Wallace gave us with her latest work, a well-crafted mix of thriller, science fiction and social commentary that offers many layers of character exploration while keeping you entranced with a deadly puzzle to solve. Highly recommended.