I want to welcome guest poster Dave Truesdale, who will be reviewing (primarily) science fiction and fantasy works here, and invite you to check out his work at Tangent. Dave is the managing editor and founder of Tangent, which is regarded by many as the premier review magazine for short fiction. He has previously been the editor for the SFWA Bulletin and was a columnist for the Magazine of Fantasty & Science Fiction. Please do check out his many other works. This review is crossposted at Tangent.
Edge of Dark
(The Glittering Edge, Book One)
by Brenda Cooper
(Pyr, March 2015, hc, 396 pp.)
In the realm of science fiction literature, authors have grappled with the issue of advanced machine intelligence for a very long time—especially when it comes to sophisticated computers who take the form of robots who look like, act like, and far too often for their own good, think like humans and with a consciousness and will of their own. We now call such entities Artifical Intelligences (or simply AIs).
The most famous example of SF dealing with the theme of artificial intelligence is Isaac Asimov's series of robot stories, wherein Asimov uses his invented positronic brains to explore the ramifications, loopholes, and problems mankind would have to confront, given the mandate of the author's iconic Three Laws of Robotics, first introduced in the 1942 short story "Runaround":
1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.
Jack Williamson took the premise and ran with it, extending the first law to include humanity as a whole, and not just individual human beings, with his classic novella from the July 1947 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, "With Folded Hands." He posited one dystopic outcome should individual choice and responsibility be relinquished (to all-caring robots, a stand-in for the State) for the safety and care his story's "Mechanicals" provided, and the consequences of sitting "with folded hands."
Williamson's unnamed expansion of Asimov's First Law of Robotics became part of the robot canon in Asimov's own June 1950 Astounding story "Evitable Conflict." Though the concept was put forward in this story, it was not codified until his 1985 novel Robots and Empire. In the novel, robot R. Daneel Olivaw acts according to what few are aware of as Asimov's Fourth Law of Robotics, which is officially defined as such in two later robot novels. It is in essence a precursor to the first three and is called the Zeroth Law. It states:
0. A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.
Along the way (and if intelligent, thinking machines weren't giving mankind enough ethical and moral dilemmas to solve), Asimov's intelligent robots became telepathic, which united them in ways humanity could not have envisioned, and which presented a whole new set of problems with which humanity had to deal.
The questions surrounding non-smart machines (automobiles, washing machines, televisions, automated assembly lines, etc.) and their role in society (how much we depend on them and for what), and science fiction's intelligent robots, has been profitable fodder for many a rousing story or film (think I, Robot starring Will Smith for a contemporary example, though the original story from which its title is taken predates Asimov's robot stories). They all have one thing in common, however, regardless of how the author(s) or filmmaker(s) choose to deal with any specific issue (moral, ethical, or practical) in their tales of Man vs. Machine: all begin with the premise that we deal with finding a solution after we have caused the problem, i.e. created our thinking machines or ever more sophisticated AIs such that a Singularity has been reached and there is no going back. We are always valiantly attempting to stuff the genie—or AI, and the problems our short-sighted thinking has caused—back in the bottle.
Not so with Brenda Cooper's marvelous Edge of Dark. She actually begins with the opposite premise, of thoughtful men and women realizing their machines need to remain subservient to their creators and doing something about it before a Singularity will have been reached and their thinking creations become the Masters and humanity slaves of their Machines.
What is her solution? During humanity's steady outward expansion from Earth to the planets and then to the far stars, fueled by advances in technology and genetic science at a seemingly unhindered pace, mankind paused to reconsider some of the philosophical and practical implications of its relationship with its advanced machine intelligences. After much discussion and deliberation a decision was made "to outlaw the marriage of mind and machine." The human race was becoming more the slave than the master, so mankind forthrightly exiled the most threatening, humanlike AIs to the far reaches of a distant solar sytem to gradually die off in the cold and dark, for these sophisticated creations needed solar energy to insure their existence. This place was known as the Edge. Problem solved, mankind resumed a more balanced relationship with its machines for many centuries, in harmony with its technology. Immense, state-of-the-art space stations were built, luxurious arks where gene-modified animals were bred and husbanded, where specially gene-tinkered grains were grown, and where advances in many disciplines (including longevity research) were constantly sought so that the people creating them might enjoy their lives and the fruits of their labor within an artificial environment. These industrious, well-adjusted spacefarers lived and died for generations aboard their immense space habitats, forming bonds and friendships without ever setting foot on a planet. It was all they knew, their educational and social interactions providing intellectual and emotional fullfilment. They were as happy as any group of highly educated, hardworking people anywhere could reasonably hope to be, off-planet or otherwise.
One such person is Nona Hall, young biology professor with a background in diplomacy on the space station Diamond Deep. Her best friend is Chrystal Peterson, who is one member of a quad-marriage with Katherine, Jason, and Li, all of whom live and work on another station called High Sweet Home and who, along with Nona, figure prominently in the story.
Nona inherits wealth, and buys her way past a difficult lottery system so she can bury her parent’s ashes on the planet Lym. Lym is a planet rescued from its industrial past and is now terraformed with wild aniamls, who attract poachers. Charlie Windar is in charge of seeing they fail. Charlie has spent his entire life on Lym, reveling in its beautiful, wide open spaces and depthless skies. He has never been off-planet and is uncomfortable with enclosed spaces, not understanding how anyone could live in the confines of any space habitat, regardless of its size.
It has now become Charlie's job to be a guide to Nona, for he is the official Ranger in charge of such obligations. We therefore find two different people with diametrically opposite lifestyles and world views—one living an enclosed life and the other a life of freedom, fresh air, and breathtaking landscapes—brought together in a series of world-shattering events that will soon change their lives beyond all recognition, for the intelligent machines exiled to the cold reaches centuries past have not died out but have somehow survived, prospered, and advanced to the point where they are now militarily invincible. They are no longer human in any reasonable respect, but cold, calculating intelligences beyond anything we can imagine. Rumors of them and their trek inward have been passed on for some time. Known as the Next, some call them "ice pirates," while others have heard them called, quite ironically, "soulbots." Ironically, because they have no souls, and destroy only those who do. They now seek the warmth and power granted by the suns from which they were exiled and have begun to attack and destroy everything in their path as they work their way inward from the Edge. And the Next have fashioned themselves to appear human, their outer life-like shells masking the cold ruthlessness of their single goal—survival.
With the broad interstellar backdrop now set, the ultimate evil now described, it remains for the story to be told by Charlie, Nona, and Chrystal, which Ms. Cooper does in brief alternating chapters that reinforce and steadily advance the narrative rather than slowing or derailing its headlong drive. The story moves.
The first of the story's world-shattering events has the Next destroying human space-born defenses as it moves inward from deep space. When it comes to High Sweet Home, however, it destroys only its token defenses and with one of its super-science technologies kidnaps the entire space station from its orbit, killing many in the process and where Nona has just left and Chrystal, Katherine, Jason, and Li are still aboard.
Nona is beside herself when news reaches her on Lym. Rumors of the Next are now reality and the role she and Charlie are destined to play unfold in due time. But the narrative now shifts to Chrystal, Katherine, Jason, and Li as the Next have plans for them and the few others who have survived the attack on High Sweet Home. What befalls them as we are shown the alien society of the Next from the inside is fraught with morbid fascination and horror, for the logic system of the Next is far removed from any human understanding. Human morals and ethics have no meaning for them and Cooper pulls no punches in illustrating the fact in gruesome fashion. This insider look at the Next and how they think and treat humans is a great counterpoint to how humans view the universe, setting up the inevitable conflict, which, as it happens, involves the planet Lym for strategic reasons known only to the Next.
By the end of this first book of a planned duology, the reader has come to care for Nona, Chrystal, and Charlie. Cooper has given us plenty of background on them so that we feel we know and understand them (foremost Nona and Charlie). Chrsystal's plight is especially heart-wrenching. Without giving away precisely what befalls her, it is she with whom we strongly identify as we try to imagine ourselves in her shoes as the inhuman Next manipulate her in unspeakable ways. Chrystal's story is the one charging the emotional batteries of the reader, so that near the end of the book we are loathe to see the story end before learning her ultimate fate, as the larger story arc takes over and sets up the conclusion in the next book.
Edge of Dark is a story told in a tried and true traditional manner, in that, as Jack Williamson believes, the writer can "use plot to reveal character, to state theme, to animate setting. In my opinion, this is the most successful way for most writers, and readers." Brenda Cooper would seem to agree if Edge of Dark is any indication. It is a story of Good and Evil writ large. Of human drama played out against said Evil, and how people react to such a life and death situation on both an individual and collective basis. Of how humanity, for once, attempted what it thought the long-term wise thing to do by exiling its intelligent creations before they became too powerful, but weren't entirely successful, for the machines somehow survived, continued to evolve, and have now returned with a vengeance. The story also evokes a sense of wonder with its immense orbiting habitats full of people working for the betterment of the species, the background of humanity exploring other worlds as it expands throughout the universe, and yes, even a dark sense of wonder for the view Cooper gives us of the utterly alien, scientifically superior society of the Next, as it moves through the void with plans and goals totally divorced from those of humankind.
Much of the best of "traditional" SF also asks important questions along with the pro-forma action, characters, themes, and plotlines. Edge of Dark does this as well, with yet another look at humanity's never-ending love/hate affair with its machines, this go round with über Artificial Intelligences with a morality and logic all their own.
I find this story asks an even deeper question, however, albeit implicitly, one I hope the author addresses in the concluding volume. And this is: While human beings long before this story takes place chose wisely (in their eyes) to forestall an AI Singularity before it occurred and for which there would be no going back, by getting rid of its existing AIs by exiling them to what appeared to be certain extinction in the cold depths of space, by this death at a distance choice they left the door open for the story events to take place. They could have destroyed what they perceived as the coming existential AI threat directly and once and for all by other means, yet chose not to do so. Was this because of some deep-seated sense of compassion against direct physical destruction of creations so much like themselves that led them to choose death at a distance where it could not be seen first hand—out of sight out of mind—and so assuage some collective sense of morality? In essence, they could have finished the job cleanly and efficiently but didn't. Why? As it turns out, we do learn how the Next survived (which I won't give away), but for some reason humanity didn't finish the job out of some perhaps misdirected sense of compassion. Or was it a combination of compassion and then incompetence. To allow a deadly foe (perceived or real) to survive—or even to have the slightest possibility of survival—when destroying the foe utterly would end any threat with certainty and preclude any future threat, has the distinct possibility of dire consequences down the road. Thus, the lesson humanity is learning the hard way in Edge of Dark is that sometimes—under extreme circumstances involving individual or species life and death matters—compassion for one's enemy is a potential fatal flaw. A flaw the implacable Next do not seem to share.
A Big Idea (one of several actually) lies behind the very premise of this story, and I'll be waiting to see where the author goes with all of this in the concluding volume, scheduled at this point for the Spring of 2016.
I hope I've given just enough of the setup and large-scale overview to entice any potential buyer without providing pivotal spoilers. This is a tricky proposition, a balancing act where too vague or thin a description of plot or storyline fails to excite the potential reader or give a true sense of the emotional impact the story provides, where on the other hand too much information reveals details, clever plot twists, and the joy of discovery best left for the reader to uncover and for which they pay their money. There is much more color, detail, plot intrigue, and incident in Edge of Dark than I have chosen to reveal here, all of which add a depth and richness to the story beyond those highlighted here.
I enjoyed this book very much. Edge of Dark is intelligent science fiction for those who enjoy their SF large scale, with plenty of intellectual food for thought running in tandem with a gripping storyline, and with the all-important and often neglected these days Sense of Wonder. A winning formula by any standard, and kudos to Cooper for having the chops to pull it off so flawlessly. Edge of Dark is one of the good ones and should not be missed. I eagerly await the concluding volume.
♣ ♣ ♣
Dave Truesdale has edited Tangent and now Tangent Online since 1993. It has been nominated for the Hugo Award five times, and the World Fantasy Award once. A former editor of the Bulletin of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, he also served as a World Fantasy Award judge in 1998, and for several years wrote an original online column for The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Now retired, he keeps close company with his SF/F library, the coffeepot, and old movie channels on TV. He lives in Kansas City, MO.