KEITH STEVENSON Horizon. Reviewed by Bill Congreve
A mission to discover a new planet is sabotaged in this debut SF full of plot twists and wonder.
There are two main schools of space opera today: military SF, where some version of the US marines arrives on the scene, kills everybody, and lets God sort out the good guys; and the ‘new’ space opera, where God doesn’t exist, the politics are progressive and slightly left of centre, and the ideas are as big as the universe of which they are quite deliberately a part. Stevenson thankfully leans towards the latter school, following a trend set by such authors as Iain M Banks, Charles Stross, M John Harrison, Keith Baxter and Peter F Hamilton. Yet Stevenson’s novel is slightly closer to home, slightly smaller in scale, slightly older-fashioned in concept – reminiscent at times of earlier writers such as Poul Anderson.
Six astronauts are blasted to the stars on a 55-year journey. Five wake from deep sleep. One dies.
The Magellan has reached the star Iota Persei, 34 light years from Earth, and is less ready to assume its mission of interplanetary exploration than its surviving crew anticipate.
The problems are more with the software and bioware than with the hardware. The second in command, Sharpe, is dead; the artificial personality, Phillips, by which the ship’s computer (not yet what you would call an artificial intelligence, but well on the way) communicates with the crew has gone mad, its functions severely degraded; and the crew themselves are at war, divided by culture, gender, personality and political agenda.
The mission? To determine if Iota Persei IV, named Horizon, is capable of supporting life.
Behind them, in the distance, in the past, the Earth is changing.
The first task is to dump velocity, slingshot past a gas giant outer planet to rendezvous with a comet and pick up fuel and to replenish the water ice which covers the Magellan and protects the ship and crew from the radiation and micrometeorites of interstellar space. That means another blast of acceleration, and another period in deep sleep.
Another crew member dies.
But in the decades they have been asleep, scientists on Earth have found a method of communicating with them, and the moral dilemmas begin.
On Earth, there has been a shake-up in the political landscape, and the ability of the biosphere to support humanity is close to collapse following deliberate eco-sabotage of the food chain by one of the emerging nations. The new rulers of Earth are not the ones who launched the Magellan. They are ruthless, and they’re desperate to colonise the new planet, despite anyone or anything that might stand in their way, such as the astronauts of the Magellan, or the less fortunate nations of Earth.
A military mission has been despatched from Earth behind the Magellan, malware uploaded to their ship’s computer, and an attempt made to remove the captain, Cait, from command.
Then Magellan arrives on Horizon and discovers life.
Horizon is a pacy thriller driven by moral ambiguity, political expedience, and the sense of wonder at discovering and exploring a new solar system. (Which Stevenson does well – more please!)
If anything, it is the pace which is the problem. The reader doesn’t have time to appreciate the concepts. The shortness of the novel (228 pages), surely not necessary in the ebook medium, doesn’t allow the ideas to be explored in depth, doesn’t allow the novel to take advantage of all the thought which has gone into its creation. Instead of depth, continual new twists in the plot force new moral dilemmas on the crew.
Yet there are still quiet moments that show why humanity has gone to the stars. Here’s Cait delivering Sharpe’s eulogy:
‘But Sharpe told me it was the darkness that called to him, not the sunlight, because within it he saw not the end of life but endless possibilities … he wanted to enter that void, push back the boundary, push back the fear …’
The novel seems to ask what the point is of exploring space unless it is explored by humans. And in the tedium of today’s bean counters and corporate risk management, that little splash of fantasy is welcome.
A solid four stars.
Keith Stevenson Horizon HarperCollins Voyager Impulse 2014 ebook 228pp $2.99
Bill Congreve is a horror and science fiction writer, and publisher of MirrorDanse Books. His latest collection is Souls Along the Meridian, and his latest story is ‘The Pit’, appearing in the forthcoming anthology of Australian Lovecraft fiction, Deep Down Under.