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Worlds Without End Blog

WoGF Review: This Alien Shore by C. S. Friedman Posted at 1:38 PM by Carl V. Anderson

Carl V.

WWEnd Women of Genre Fiction Reading ChallengeCarl V. Anderson (Carl V.) operates Stainless Steel Droppings, a blog dedicated to books, film, games and trail running. Be sure to check out his 2013 Science Fiction Experience reading challenge. Carl can also be found on a semi-regular basis posting reviews and interviews for SF Signal.

Editor’s Note: this review counts for November.

This Alien ShoreIt is the second stage of human colonization–the first age, humanity’s initial attempt to people the stars, ended in disaster when it was discovered that Earth’s original superluminal drive did permanent genetic damage to all who used it–mutating Earth’s far-flung colonists in mind and body. Now, one of Earth’s first colonies has given humanity back the stars, but at a high price–a monopoly over all human commerce. And when a satellite in earth’s outer orbit is viciously attacked by corporate raiders, an unusual young woman flees to a ship bound for the Up-and-Out. But her narrow escape does not mean safety. For speeding across the galaxy pursued by ruthless, but unknown adversaries, this young woman will discover a secret which is buried deep inside her psyche–a revelation the universe may not be ready to face….

I don’t often post book copy in a review, but This Alien Shore, a 1998 novel that was listed as a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, is a layered, character-heavy novel that has so much going on that the prepared synopsis gives a nice foundation from which to build a review.

Jamisia Shido is the young woman in question, rendered beautifully on the cover by the talented Michael Whelan, and from the opening chapter Friedman has her on the run. The pace of the beginning is breathless and break-neck and Friedman intersperses sections of high tension with those of intricate story building to create a vast, tightly-woven story that even at its significant length has you wondering how it will be possible for her to tie up all of the various threads.

But she does so, marvelously, and I am only sorry I didn’t discover C. S. Friedman‘s work many years ago as I’ve wasted a lot of time not being able to sing her praises.

Fifteen years may not seem like a long time ago, but that is an eternity in tech years when you think about how much technology has changed and advanced in the last decade and a half. This Alien Shore is a book filled with mystery, intrigue, and drama featuring humans, genetically altered humanity, technologically altered humanity, hackers, government officials, characters with questionable loyalties and none of it feels dated. This Alien Shore reads as if it could have come off the presses yesterday and I credit Friedman’s foresight and narrative skill in writing a novel that holds up so remarkably against the advances in technology that we have already seen. It does not shy away from scientific concepts and ideas while also being a novel highly accessible to readers who do not normally partake of genre fiction.

C. S. FriedmanThe various characters in Friedman’s world are quite unique. The process which gave mankind the ability to travel among the stars created what is known as the Haussman Effect, it genetically altered humanity in a wide variety of ways. These humans, termed Variants, invariably frightened and disgusted the “true humans” who promptly stopped interstellar travel and no longer supported those humans spread across the galaxy. Eons later, despite much protest, the Gueran people, those blessed with the ability to pilot humanity through space, came back to offer Earth one, and only one, chance to join the rest of the human race. Because of the Haussman Effect the people in Friedman’s world maintain a degree of humanity which makes it easy to relate to them while at the same time creating several unique races which are fascinating to discover.

Friedman introduces these Variants throughout the novel by weaving their characteristics and beliefs and purpose into the story, using not only the scenes played in various chapters but also with the device of having each chapter start with a selection from some historical document or speech or book that gives the reader a glimpse into the greater world in existence. It all comes together very well to tell a compelling story while never leaving you feeling as if you are being lectured about a specific race.

The science fictional elements of the story maintain a strong internal consistency and read as if Friedman had a strong grasp on the concepts behind her “science”, even if it would not be deemed plausible outside of the novel. There are several interesting concepts here, some of which drew my memory back to stories written by other authors long ago. Cordwainer Smith‘s “Scanners Live in Vain” comes to mind when reading about the outpilots and the manner in which space travel is achieved, for example.

While there are all manner of science fiction trappings to excite the passionate fan, the overarching strength of the This Alien Shore is the characters. Jamisia is a particularly complex character who we learn early on has multiple personalities. I won’t give anything away here but will say that I could not help but think of River Tam from Firefly as Jamisia’s origins are slowly revealed. Dr. Kio Masada is a Guild scientist who is another prominent character and through him we learn a great deal about his race and their customs. He is a fascinating character and I always enjoyed when the point of view switched his way. Throughout the novel other characters are introduced and slowly the cast is brought together in ways that serve to keep the tension high and the pages turning. C. S. Friedman does a nice job of making you suspicious of everyone given that Jamisia has something hidden within her that the authorities want which makes her a prime target for anyone looking for either a reward or to get their hands on whatever secrets she holds within her highly modified brain.

At 564 pages in the mass market paperback edition, This Alien Shore is a stout read. That being said, I found myself wondering, even as I approached the 100 pages remaining mark, just how Friedman was going to wrap up all these story lines. I needn’t have been concerned as she does so marvelously. There is so much of interest here and rather than spend paragraph after paragraph describing it all, which I could easily do, I will simply tell you to read it. It is a great book and well worth your time.

I will certainly be availing myself of more of the work of C. S. Friedman in the future.

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