Friday, November 5, 2021

"The Re-Emergence" by Alan K. Dell--Fiction Review

Battle stations, Obscurists! Today we’re talking about Alan K. Dell’s “The Re-Emergence,” a space opera with all the starship-on-starship violence you could want. Unless you don’t want any, then there is quite a lot—also, who are you!?

Alan K. Dell

***The Non-Spoiler part of this review***

What I love about this book:

Dell’s novella is a sci-fi made by, and for, sci-fi geeks—and since I am one of those, I loved that aspect. It’s specifically space opera, and it’s got a feel somewhere between “Star Trek” and “Battlestar Galactica.” Without spoiling too much, this story has a lot of focus on two nearly evenly matched starships tilting and thrashing it out in a running fight across star systems. He includes all of my favorite starship duel stuff. There are sparking consoles, technobabble, shield levels falling menacingly, et cetera, et cetera. But it’s also got that visceral feel to the ship combat that Battlestar brought, point defense weapons, metal slugs tearing straight through shields, armor, and crew.

There is a vaguely creepy aspect to this story that I appreciated—sci-fi horror being my favorite mix of horror. It’s a light undertone, nothing too overt, like walking past a graveyard at night. The tension is brought on by the setting more than anything, which is one of horror’s best tools, but other than violence is scary, there isn’t anything more to it in this story.

An AI character is present in this story, and Dell injects what I think is the most interesting question regarding artificial intelligence. It isn’t whether or not AI is or isn’t alive, conscious, or only mimicking it; it’s whether or not when it says it is alive and sentient if you can make the leap in empathy to believe it? Because at the end of the day, what this reveals about a person’s character is, is your first instinct to treat things with respect or curiosity, or is it to dismiss and be afraid?

What I don’t love about this book:

So the flip side of a science fiction story written for science fiction nerds is a double-edged sword. As much as I personally might like Dell’s story, it’s not particularly welcoming to readers unused to space opera. It forces the reader to make an empathic jump right away: why do we care about this thing—an AI that achieved sapience that runs a detection satellite built by an alien race of bird people—in the first place? Then when we meet the bird people, now why do we care about them? The point I’m trying to draw here isn’t that we shouldn’t—by all means—it’s that this story, much like the classics of the genre, is a very you’ve got to stick with it for a while to get it. In that regard, it reminds me of “Dune,” but that might be just because I watched the new movie recently, too. I don’t like or dislike this quality in this or any other sci-fi plot, but I do think it is the genre’s biggest barrier to entry for new readers.

What doesn’t help the dislocation in time, space, and culture at the beginning of the story is it’s relatively slow on the jump. Again that’s not an inherently good or bad thing. I know plenty of wonderful stories that have slow atmospheric building beginnings. But since this is a novella, it’s a short read. So the slow start where there is a lot of talk about an ancient enemy primes you intellectually for that threat but not viscerally on an emotional level when shit hits the fan, and it becomes a fast-paced action story. It’s the sort of difference between knowing fire is hot and can burn you and understanding fire is hot and watching it burn down your house—with loved ones inside.

This preview is an Amazon Affiliate link; 
as an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases

Author's Website:

***The Spoiler part of this review***
***Ye be warned to turn back now***

The quick and dirty synopsis:

The novella opens with an old satellite—ancient really, hundreds of thousands of years old—named Unit-17, minding its business of being an early detection satellite that has never detected anything of note in its long existence. Then it does. It detects an enemy vessel near Maldaccian space, which is the very reason Unit-17 and its fellows were created to watch for in the first place. It then launches a probe to warn its makers, per its programming.

Back at P’hori, the home system of the Maldaccian empire, the avian-like aliens who are the Maldaccians have forgotten that they even built an early warning system of detection satellites. So it’s a bit of a shock when one has a gloomy message for them. Unit-17 informs them of the vessel from their ancient enemies, and it is decided that Imperator Da’Kora will take his ship, the Qesh’kal, and a skeleton crew out to investigate.

Along for the mission is the digital consciousness of Unit-17, which the crew of the Qesh’kal just call Seventeen. It acts as a subject matter expert since only it remembers that the Maldaccians really did fight and lose a war with the Ancient Wanderers. As opposed to what is popularly believed that they were a myth and the former glorious space-faring Maldaccian empire just collapsed under the economic strain of supporting a multi-star-system civilization. Not everyone is convinced. In fact, one junior officer is openly hostile toward Seventeen and is suspicious of its every action and intention.

Once out in deep space, amongst the ruined star systems of Maldaccian’s Old Alliance worlds, the Qesh’kal and her crew are faced with the terrifying truth that the Ancient Wanderers are very real. Quickly things devolve, and the enemy vessel built by the Ancient Wanderers engages the Qesh’kal. Projectiles and energy beams start flying, but the Qesh’Kal manages to hold its own in the ensuing ship-to-ship slugfest. It’s astonishing to the Maldaccians because in the last war, their entire navy, along with their allies, were essentially wiped out by only a handful of the Ancient Wanderer’s ships. Mysteriously, while the Maldaccians have progressed technologically, despite being on the defeated side last time, the Ancient Wanderers don’t seem to have changed much at all.

The fight becomes a running one, with the Qesh’Kal eeking out a slight advantage in the firefight. At first, they’re hesitant to give chase, but it becomes clear that it’s necessary because the enemy vessel doesn’t need to defeat them to succeed in its mission. It just needs to report back what it has learned.

In the second half of the encounter, the Qesh’Kal is rocked back on its heels by internal damage being more severe than expected and Seventeen suddenly being cut off from the rest of the crew. The junior officer who distrusted Seventeen the whole time used his abilities as a programmer to force the AI into what he thought was a state of hibernation but actually almost killed the AI. In any case, Seventeen cannot assist or even contact the ship’s crew in its typical manner. Casualties and damage to the Qesh’Kal mount as Imperator Da’Kora’s unexpectedly handicapped crew struggle to keep up the fight despite the damage to the ship without the Seventeen’s guidance.

Eventually, Seventeen manages to contact the crew and is restored in time to assist the crew as they are forced to repel a boarding action. Unfortunately, while the Maldaccians enjoyed a slight advantage in ship-to-ship combat, they’re woefully overmatched in close quarters combat with the Ancient Wanderers boarding party. The bloody battle of attrition that ensues is bitter and costs a lot of crew members their lives before the Imperator’s niece manages to finish off the last one right before it succeeds in executing her Imperator and Uncle. 

Things finally turn definitely when the Qesh’Kal manages to critically damage the enemy vessel. Before it can completely obliterate its target, the ship’s weapon systems go down due to damage sustained during the fight. It’s decided that it’s of little consequence because the Ancient Wanderer ship will unavoidably crash into a certain red planet in this system it had run to while being chased by the Qesh’Kal.

In the epilogue, all doubt is removed that the red planet the enemy vessel crashed on was Mars because the Qesh’Kal picks up signals from the third planet in the system—Earth. Imperator Da’Kora is faced with a difficult decision. Clearly, this encounter means war once again with the Ancient Wanderers. Also, his superiors back home will want to make contact with humanity, which will drag them into the war with the Ancient Wanderers. So he decides to delete all the information about Earth and swear the crew who do know about the data already to secrecy.


So focusing on the character of the Imperator—I find him a fascinating mix of Admiral Adama and Captain Jean-Luc Picard—or at least that’s what I read into the character subjectively. Like Adama, by the time we meet him, he’s a respected old commander of an old ship. Also, like Adama, he’s got a green crew who have no real combat experience, which impacts their first encounters with an actual enemy. However, his decision to attempt non-interference with humanity is a principled stance that is very much Picard-like and isn’t something I think Adama would have let himself indulge in the luxury of—especially when faced with a potential war of annihilation.

I’m also a big fan of the asymmetric technology levels at play in the conflict between the Ancient Wanderers and the Maldaccians. It’s reminiscent of World War 2 conflicts where different factions had different technology. And that technology was sometimes better and sometimes inferior to their opponents, which creates a whole interesting dynamic of uncertainty to battles and campaigns. I’ve seen a lot of feedback on this point—with other unrelated stories and authors—that it makes the worldbuilding more realistic. On which point, I agree it makes conflicts in a story more interesting. Still, I’d argue it’s just as much an artifice as assuming everyone has nearly comparable technology across the board.

Without getting too far off into this tangent—the asymmetry of WW2 isn’t historically the norm, neither is it necessary that technology levels are equal. Typically, when one culture encounters another previously unknown or distant culture—in the likely resulting conflict—one side vastly dominates the other from a technical standpoint. In the modern world, we’re so used to either everyone is pretty much the same or I’m better at this, and you’re better at that because we all belong to the same closed system, and even though the Earth is big, we’re all in relatively close contact with each other. In the past, when mountains, deserts, and oceans were more of a barrier to cultures mixing, one could make contact and find out—to their misfortune—that the other has developed gun powder while they themselves have been uselessly perfecting the best way to sharpen a sword.

In space, and with deep time, one would have to assume the problem would only get worse—and here is where I think the most exciting story beat Dell strikes emerges. The Maldaccians have already fought, with allies too nonetheless, the Ancient Wanderers, and they got steamrolled last time. One culture had overwhelming technological superiority, which is what realistically we should expect. The asymmetrical warfare of the current day in this story is a mystery, and that mystery is: why have the Ancient Wanderers stopped progressing? I hope Dell has a suitably interesting answer to that question in his new novel set in this universe or in future books in the series.

Parting thoughts:

Some of my best formative story experiences came from science fiction. I have loved the genre for as long as I can remember, and I’ve read countless stories that are sci-fi in some way or another. Clearly, I’ve loved “Star Trek” and “Battlestar Galactica,” and I could go on with the list of “Star Wars,” “West World,” to just name shows and movies. In books, I could go on for way—way longer. I think that sci-fi, more so than all the other genres, can open a reader up to the possibility of new ways of thinking. 

That said, I also think science fiction commands the most clannish tribe of fans out there. If ever you want to have a miserable afternoon, engage or even challenge a sci-fi nerd on what is or isn’t considered “hard science fiction.” You will receive spreadsheets worth of data spewed at you—sometimes literally. That’s the extreme edge of why people new to sci-fi or those who avoid it actively can feel alienated by hardcore science fiction fans.

Sometimes, though, that alienation isn’t something we mean to do—it just—happens. Why it does, even when sci-fi creators and fans have the best of intentions sharing what they love, is a complicated topic, more so than I’m going to get into today. 

The one thread I’d like to pull on as my concluding thought is that it’s my intuition that people—general audiences—are far more primed to accept magic in their fiction than speculation on the future. 

There are two major reasons for this as I see it—first, for most of human history and even a significant number of people today, people have believed that magic is absolutely real and somehow a fact of life. They might not call it that exactly, but they engage in some form of magical thinking one way or another. Second, the human brain isn’t naturally wired to understand exponentials. We assume tomorrow will look a lot like today, and so will the day after that because that point of common wisdom has seemed to be nearly always accurate.

My point is most science fiction stories feel more fantastical than literal magic to the general audience, no matter how robustly explained how it matches up with current scientific understanding because imagining the future in of itself is a challenging feat of imagination. The idea that the speed of change and progress is compounding is a foreign concept.

No comments:

Post a Comment