This Alien Shore, by CS Friedman

Published 1998
Review by Tim

In a world where data is coin of the realm, and transmissions are guarded by no better sentinels than man-made codes and corruptible devices, there is no such thing as a secret.

- Dr Kio Masada

Cover of DAW EditionMethods of space travel that cheat the light-barrier are a commonplace of science fiction; they are also among the most speculative inventions of a highly speculative field. In This Alien Shore two such methods are known, neither one of them entirely satisfactory from humanity's point of view.

The first of these is the Hausman drive, which promised the stars to Earth's desperately overcrowded populations. Dozens of worlds were quickly colonized before it was realized that the drive created drastic and irreversible genetic damage in the people who used it. Humanity on Earth recoiled in horror and loathing before the often bizarre mutations that were engendered. The Hausman drive was abandoned, and the colonies were cut off from the homeworld, to survive or die on their own.

At last, an alternative to the Hausman drive was found - naturally occurring rifts in space-time, called ainiq by their discoverers. A ship passing through one of these rifts can then navigate through an alien dimension at speeds as fast as thought, eventually returning to the familiar universe through another rift. This method of travel has three disadvantages:

Ainiq-space was discovered by the Guerans, one of the Hausman variants. The Guerans' mutation was not physical for the most part, but mental. Psychological aberrations long bred out of the populations of Earth were recreated and magnified. One of these psychoses, which must be controlled with drugs most of the time, allows certain Guerans to successfully pilot ships in ainiq-space, and evade the predators that inhabit the place. This gives the Gueran Pilots Guild a monopoly on space travel that is resented by many, especially on Earth (many readers of sf will recognize in this a strong resemblance to the spacing guild created in Frank Herbert's Dune).

One of the more useful properties of ainiq-space is that it readily conducts many types of electromagnetic radiation; this allows instantaneous communication between the various ainiq. Space stations have been built at each of the ainiq locations used by humans, functioning as transfer points for passengers and cargo, and as centers of commerce. These stations are in continuous contact with each other through the ainiq, forming a vast, star-spanning communications web, a virtual reality that people can access using "brainware" that is implanted almost universally at birth.

The foregoing is just a broad outline of the incredibly detailed setting, a flavored mix of space-opera and cyberpunk, that Friedman has created for this novel. Two plot lines thread their way through the story. In one, a superbly designed computer virus is attacking the brainware of Gueran ainiq-pilots. Dr Kio Masada, a Gueran programming wizard, must somehow trace the virus to its source before it does lasting harm to the Guild. He obtains the assistance of station-network hackers, who have also suffered from the virus. The other plot line follows the plight of a young girl named Jamisia Shido. Jamisia was the subject of some rather sadistic psychological experiments aimed at creating ainiq-pilots. She is now fleeing for her life through the ainiq network, pursued by corporations who wish to use her to break the Guild spacing monopoly. The plots eventually converge toward a surprising climax.

All of CS Friedman's work is very good, and has been getting steadily better. The author published her first novel, In Conquest Born, in 1986. This was followed by The Madness Season in 1990, and her acclaimed Coldfire Trilogy from 1991 to 1995. This Alien Shore is her most recent effort, and her finest work to date.

March, 2001