Dark Space by Marianne de Pierres
Published by Orbit, May 2007
Review by Mark Yon / Hobbit
Marianne’s series of prominence to date has been the Parrish Plessis series (Nylon Angel, (2004), Code Noir (2004) and Crash Deluxe (2005)). These were entertaining, fast-moving cyberpunk books, with a sassy streetwise heroine in a declining post-apocalytic Earth environment.
However for Marianne’s new book, her vision has changed. Marianne’s new series takes on a much older SF theme and style: that of Space Opera. Consequently we are looking at a variety of characters rather than a single point of view, and a much broader canvas, spanning different planets and a variety of aliens.
The story is also ambitious: it starts with the accidental discovery of an alien intelligence; a being so advanced that it can be seen by humans as God. Its purpose in being discovered (or allowing itself to be uncovered) is at first unclear, but becomes more disambiguous as the tale unfolds. At the beginning of the book the trade is simple: ‘one clearly delineated feat of cleverness on the part of the Sentients (humans) in exchange for new knowledge or a key to knowledge.’ (page 3.)
In order to communicate with God (known as Sole Entity or Sole here), the Sentients have to be volunteers and be prepared to have their minds altered (or shafted) so that their minds can operate in distinct layers to understand and converse with this deity. Consequently, a galactic sub-society is created, where on a nearby planet, Belle Monde, the volunteers are trained in Studia, selected (or turned down) and converted to do this. Conveniently for us, it at first appears that, whether by accident or design, only humans can do this.
The human and social aspects of the story are shown by a variety of human characters, of different statuses and backgrounds. It is not by accident that Marianne’s characters have an Italianate vibe, using Italian vocabulary and societal structures which brought to my mind images of the Machiavellian Borgia or Claudius Caesar’s families. Clans and families proliferate, with favour and privilege part of society.
And, as in most good space operas, the story mirrors aspects of the real world in order for us to examine them from a more distant perspective: societies based on stratified levels of power and prosperity as well as chance and favour, inequality, racism.
In to all this we are introduced to characters in this society. Tekton is a candidate (Godhead) from a minor position in society but in the fortunate position of being a successful applicant to be shafted. Mira Fedor is a Baronessa, but also a candidate expected to be uplifted to being Pilot First. Due to the complexities of family politics she is rejected by Franco Pelligrini, the Principe, but being desired for her Inborn gene which allows her to be a Pilot, consequently goes on the run. Trinder Pelligrini, son of the Principe, has been selected as Pilot First and successor but whose accidental bad-boy behaviour with his father’s consort leads him to be exiled to a mining planet where it is hoped he will learn valuable lessons and not be an embarrassment for his parents.
So far, so good. The first two-hundred or so pages are spent introducing these characters, creating the worlds and societies often beloved of space opera. What makes this interesting though is that just as things seem to be settling to a story of societal hierarchies and social progress, there is a discontinuity. At about the mid-point of the book, events suddenly change to a faster pace. After some minor terrorist activity in the early part of the book, the mining planet of Araldis is invaded by the Saqr - an all-consuming insectile creature, whose means of feeding is by sucking out bodily fluid through a person’s head. The characters mentioned above, having been delineated in the first part of the book, have to deal with a set of very different circumstances in the second. There are hardships and adversity, social change and the erosion of those lavish lifestyles hinted at earlier. This includes some quite harrowing scenes of war and destruction, not to mention rape. As the story reaches its end, the link between the events of the book is explained and some intriguing points set up, which will no doubt be resolved later in this series.
What was interesting to me was that the change to a new series has allowed Marianne to stretch her skills and flex her authorial muscles. Though not initially as fast paced as the Parrish series, it is clearly ambitious and something which shows a pleasing breadth and depth, though not too philosophical. It is much darker than her earlier series, which wasn’t exactly light reading – Dark Space indeed! Many of the elements of Space Opera are present, for those who like Space Opera: there are a variety of characters to follow, though not all are likeable (at least at first.) There is a feeling of great events and unknown things at work, though the book is focused on the main characters and their surroundings. What is clever here is that Marianne has taken some of the Space Opera tropes and twisted them about, for example introducing a strong-willed female into a determinedly male-orientated society. The plot is fast enough to engage the reader, relatively easy to get a grasp of, and, unlike some space operas, not too long to outstay its welcome. Part Dune, part Gateway, part Alien, Marianne’s new series looks like one to continue reading.
Marianne has been interviewed by SFFWorld: link HERE.
Mark Yon, July 2007
Copyright © sffworld.com. If quoted please credit "sffworld.com, name of reviewer".