Monday, October 18, 2021

Chris Farnell's FERMI'S PROGRESS Quartet

Imagine a cool, well-appointed, fairly advanced-compared-to-what-we-have-now spaceship. Something like, say, the good old Starship Enterprise, its five year mission to explore strange new worlds etc., etc. Only with a much, much smaller crew. And that crew consists of Arnold Schwarzenegger's and Danny DeVito's characters from Ivan Reitman's Twins (1988), a billionaire (yeah, this isn't the Star Trek universe's post scarcity economy, nor is it that far into the future; Donald Trump is still something about which our heroes are embarrassed) and a subcontinental Indian trans woman who is a hell of an engineer. There will be a bit more crew as we go, but to start up, that's it.

Sounds like a bit of a good time but nothing like a good time that we haven't already had before over the last fifty years or so. It must be a pretty good time since we've been having it and coming back to it for fifty years or so, but still. Ho, hum.

Except this groovy spaceship, built by a somewhat deranged supergenius completely on the sly in the late 1970s but only brought to life and readied for its maiden voyage twenty minutes into our future, is powered by something even worse than nuclear bombs, something nobody really understands that well but does, in fact, give humanity the hope, and the reality, of faster-than-light travel. Except that part about nobody understanding it that well? Not the mad scientist who originally built it, and not the trans woman engineer, whose name is Rajita, and oh no, there's nobody else to consult about it because...

Because as soon as its engine is fired up for the very first time, it completely destroys not our good old planet Earth but also its entire solar system. Right on its first test run, which was supposed to be a quick trip to another nearby system with a few potentially habitable exoplanets that humanity could some day spread out to and colonize let's go make a quick jaunt and see if they're really going to be suitable for that except NO. Well, yes, but no. No more need to find additional homes for humanity because there's no more humanity. Or elephants. Or mosquitos. Or cockroaches, Or coronaviruses. Or rocks. Or water. Or atoms. 

Nothing left to save except four human beings who were heading out on a little shakedown cruise.

And no, this is not a spoiler; it's the entire premise of this quartet of novellas, as the jacket copy says. What if the Enterprise was a giant unstoppable genocide machine but instead of a steady and capable Archer/Pike/Kirk/Picard/Sisko/Janeway/Georgiu/Saru/Killy, there's twin brothers Samson (Schwarzenegger, the twin who got shot up with the supersoldier serum, the top notch education, the optimal nutrition program, etc.) and Connor (Devito, the Control) (Oh, and both of them are the biological sons of the mad scientist, who was a barely-reconstructed Nazi and thus obsessed with genetics and might have left booby traps on the ship that can only be disarmed by people who share his DNA), the aforementioned Rajita, and Liz Gordon, the billionaire tech sis who rounded up this crew and provided the impetus to take the Fermi out of orbital mothballs and see what it could do. They don't know each other all that well -- even the brothers are barely acquainted, as they weren't raised together because Connor was the Control, yannow -- were not selected for optimal compatibility or skill sets or psychological fitness to go out into deep space and certainly weren't in any way prepared to deal with the fact that, oopsie daisy, they just killed billions and billions of humans, exterminated, possibly, all of the other life in the universe and also wrecked any chance of a resupply on food, water, oxygen, coffee, clean underwear...

So yeah, these stories have as dark an undertone as you could ask for right from the get go. And what author Chris Farnell has decided to do with them makes them even darker, but also occasionally strangely breezy and even fun -- and that's despite, not because of, the quippiness of a lot of the dialogue. Always with the wise cracks and the odd pop culture reference, these four. But wait! There's more!

The first novella, Dyson's Fear (brillant title), is also structurally the most interesting, as it jumps about through time, playing out events before and after the Fermi's fatal launch. Each chapter is located in time relative to that launch, so some things are described as taking place several hundred days "before you die" and others up to 32 days "after you died" -- when the crew of the Fermi arrive in that solar system they'd planned to peek in on. Only our data on it was way out of date because even the speed of light isn't that fast on the scale of galaxies, amirite? 

What they find is not a star and its orbiting planets and assorted debris, but a Dyson sphere - an artificial structure that completely encompasses the star, capturing all of that star's energy and diverting it to some dedicated purpose quite alien to whatever the star might think its purpose is. Usually as we imagine it, it's a kind of mega-habitat, which turns out to be the case here as the Fermi slows down and docks with it, with Samson, Connor and Gordon forming humanity's first ever away team. A very, very flawed away team. They have entertaining and engaging adventures within the sphere, seeking out new life and new civilizations that fortunately have already invented the Universal Translator, but meanwhile, back on the Fermi Rajita has company in the form of a robot avatar of the artificial intelligence that created and runs the Dyson sphere and together they discover that umm hurry up guys get back on the ship because it's going to power up again and do the same thing it did to our good old solar system really damned soon!

And so as the second novella, Descartesmageddon, starts up, the crew has grown by one as the robot avatar of the Dyson sphere, which calls itself World, has uploaded as much of its solar system-sized mind into the robot to survive the destruction of its grand creation, and everybody now has two unbelievably-scaled acts of accidental genocide on their consciences. On World's wise advice, they've set course for a completely empty bit of space so they can't accidentally destroy another entire system, but of course that goes wrong and they find themselves in orbit around a fascinating, richly described and downright bizarre new planet they are now an existential threat to, but need to visit because they're running out of food and oh, look, this one is at the tail end of a zombie apocalypse! As they take up orbit, Rajita reveals that after the scrapes the away team got into last time, she's turned the Fermi's bank of 3D printers to making guns, and after a bleakly entertaining discussion about the morality of going into the arms dealing racket (it's all they've got to trade for food) as their second foray into first contact, down they go.

What happens planetside is exciting, challenging and poses even more of an ethical/philosophical head-scratcher than Dyson's Fear did, for the zombies on this hellish-looking world aren't your typical shamblers moaning for braaaaaaains; they're Cartesian zombies. And aliens. They're Cartesian zombie aliens. But, just like the good old zombie plagues of a thousand movies and novels before it, the zombie state is contagious. And jumps the species gap. Or does it?

This adventure leaves lasting impacts on the crew and its group cohesion, as Rajita in particular winds up bonding with a group of natives on this latest world in a way that suggests her neurodivergence has clicked with other individuals in a way she hasn't before, giving Descartesmageddon an emotional resonance that the previous novella lacked and that we don't see again really in the rest of the series. But that's all star systems blown up under the bridge. Or something.

With yet another systemicide under their belts and some new passengers, if not yet crewmates, in tow, the Fermi's next port of call is one of the most unusual alien worlds I've encountered in fiction; the civilization the crew meets are all in some way involved, as the title Planet of the Apiaries indicates, in beekeeping. But not in the way you're thinking, cute in their outfits and screen-hats frolicking with screens full of honeycombs in their backyards; these bees are gigantic, and they don't make honey, they make starship fuel. Which the Fermi needs if its to continue on its destructive way (it's established early on in the series that stopping the Fermi would be even worse than letting it rampage through the universe). Oh, and these aliens? Communicate via body language or dance (like bees!) and their names all denote some kind of idiosyncratic hand position or gesture. Love it!*

The narrative that results here is an intricate Rube-Goldberg plot of escapes that use all three dimensions and then pit the crew against a new kind of alien that, even more than the Cartesian zombies of the previous world, turns our friends' neurological weaknesses against them, which allows the introduction of entire new characters that have always been there but the crew -- and we -- forgot them, or never noticed them, or never noticed that we'd forgotten them, because aliens can hijack our own neurological weaknesses now. Do these novellas keep getting better? They keep getting better, and this one ends on an existential/philosophical cliffhanger that manages to make the progress of a star system-destroying ship even more of an ethical dilemma than it already was, but also gives our crew a purpose they've been starting to lack as we start into The Phone Job.

The Phone Job starts us off by passing through several new systems that offer tantalizing delights that any space Stephen Maturin would be screaming in frustration not to get to explore -- right before they are annihilated, maintaining the series' incredibly dark tone even as we see the crew have found a new diversion in the form of tossing a rubber ball and letting it progress through the entire torus of their ship before returning to the thrower, who just has to turn 180 degrees to catch their own throw. I mean, how would you take your mind off things? Watch TV? And know that every person involved in the making of that show is dead and so are all the other things you're seeing on the screen and even that city they're in and even that country, that continent, that entire planet, that entire solar system? I'd probably mostly throw a ball around, too.

Except Liz Gordon, Gordon gotta Gordon, and even though the World has near-infinite processing power and knowledge and hasn't been able to find the source of the revelation that ended Planet of the Apiaries (which, by the way, came via goofball Connor's insight, because he's only dumb compared to Samson, remember), Gordon thinks she can find what the World cannot, namely the bit of computer code they have to change to stop their never-ending death parade. Preferably before she has to open their last tin of coffee.

And then the Fermi brings them all to the most inhabited system yet, and it's one where Liz soon feels right at home: the headquarters of the Greater Galactic Commercial Network. That's right, there finally is an interstellar empire, and it's captialist AF, baby!

And the GGCN possesses technology that can maybe put a stop to the Fermi's interstellar murder spree! But capitalism, so Gordon and goofball Connor, natural enemies as they've proven to be, have to team up to bilk -- err, trade -- to get that technology. You'd think they'd have a pat hand with their monopoly on faster-than-light travel but not with those two playing it...

While, as with the rest of the novellas in the series, everything comes together in the end (Farnell is very good with complicated-yet-tight plots), and we do get something like closure, I'm also delighted to discover that at some point in the future we're going to get more Progress out of Fermi.

See what I did there? Eh? Eh?

*Really, this world is kind of an inside-out version of Clark Thomas Carleton's wonderful Antasy trilogy, in which humans have evolved into tiny, tiny beings perfectly sized to ride insects like warhorses, share anthills with various ant species, use locusts as planes in their air force, and adopt many of their domesticated arthopod pals' other traits just to survive. It's the coolest idea for a fantasy series, maybe ever (and no, it's not just Dune with Literal Insects, although of course it is a lot Dune with Literal Insects)! The third volume of which just dropped late last month and I'll be buzzing about very, very soon.


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