Publisher: Saga Press
Publication Date – 31 October 2017
Space pirates take on rogue artificial intelligences in this electrifying young adult science fiction debut from R. E. Stearns.
In the distant future, humanity is recovering from a devastating civil war between Earth and its colonies. Life is hard for all, especially for newly graduated engineers Adda Karpe and Iridian Nassir, who can only look forward to a lifetime of paying off their loans on a minimum wage. So when Adda’s brother, Pel, contacts her with an opportunity, Adda and Iridian decide on a future as pirates. Hijacking a massive colony ship, the girls make for Barbary Station, the base of operations for the infamous Captain Sloan, whose adventures and riches have been romanticised across the system.
Hoping to impress the pirates with their stolen ship, Adda and Iridian are shocked when, instead of bold adventurers living in luxurious conditions, they find a mismatched crew barely surviving in a hidden makeshift base welded to the hull of Barbary Station.
The station’s AI, AegiSKADA, has gone haywire and has taken to targeting all life forms on the station, bearing a particular grudge against the pirates. Armed drones hunt people through the interior of the station, and the station’s gun batteries shoot down any ship that gets too close. On top of that, a colony of refugees are hiding in the station, a team of crazed doctors are making life difficult for everyone and three mysterious ships swoop around the station, killing or saving as they see fit.
Now wanted criminals, Adda and Iridian have to destroy the AI to become members of the pirate crew. The last team that tried to shut down AegiSKADA died a fiery death, and the pirates have already taken bets on how long the newcomers will survive. Luckily, Adda is an expert on artificial intelligences and Iridian is a former solider with a big combat shield and superior survival skills.
However, AegiSKADA is the most is one of the most advanced AIs in the galaxy and is surrounded by lethal defences. AegiSKADA is learning and is determined to kill every invader on Barbary Station. And, as malevolent as the AI is, it is not the only danger facing Adda and Iridian.
Barbary Station is a great debut from R. E. Stearns, a thrilling new voice in science fiction. This young adult book takes an exhilarating look into a future of artificial intelligences while introducing some exciting characters and fast-paced action.
Stearns does a great job of exploring the concepts of artificial intelligences, as well as examining the theories and debates about whether they are truly alive. Among the highlights of the book are the multiple scenes in which Adda interfaces with the station’s systems, including some especially tense scenes in which she interfaces directly with AegiSKADA in order to determine what actions it is taking against the humans. Stearns masterfully handles the complex matter of AI sentience, creating a narrative which is engaging and thought provoking without oversimplifying the underlying concepts.
Narration for the novel is split between the two main characters, Adda and Iridian, allowing for a well-balanced breakup of the book’s various scenes. Iridian’s scenes are usually filled with action and exploration, while Adda’s scenes tend to involve the technical exposition and theoretical debate. The dual perspectives help enhance certain scenes while also adding a dash of realism and tension to those moments when Adda and Iridian are unaware of how the other is faring in their respective missions. Our heroes, with their varied experiences and character traits, are great foils for each other and can meet the challenges within Stearns’ universe. It is great to see a same-sex couple so well portrayed in a young adult novel.
Stearns has also populated the book with a range of other interesting characters. The majority of inhabitants within the station are a typical group of mismatched misfit pirates, led by the revered and enigmatic Captain Sloan, enduring and reflecting the chaotic nature of life within Barbary Station. Stearns does take the time to introduce a few key characters for the reader to get attached to, and uses them for full emotional effect. Perhaps the most interesting is Pel, a flakey, skittish character who manipulates his sister into a dangerous environment in order to save himself. He undergoes some great character development within the story. Readers will be intrigued as elements of his history and his motivations are revealed, especially regarding his unique connection to events within the space station.
Overall, Stearns has produced a charming and engrossing first book, bringing together several individually great science fiction elements and combining them into one kickass novel. Barbary Station is a fantastic choice for science fiction fans no matter their age.