Defy the Stars
The planet Genesis has tried to secede from Earth’s ring of colony planets in order to create an ethical, environmental and religious utopia, but Earth isn’t letting it go without a fight. Thirty years earlier, a vicious war ended in stalemate, but the conflict has resumed. Noemi Vidal is one of her planet’s many teen soldiers, flying in battle when she finds an abandoned ship from that old war. Obviously nobody is alive on it – but artificially intelligent robots, called mech, aren’t alive. Are they?
Abel was the crowning achievement of inventor Burton Mansfield. His artificial sentience goes far beyond that of the other models Earth makes (soldiers, bureaucrats, prostitutes, and the like). When Noemi discovers him, it frees him up to return to his ‘father’ – except his programming requires him to obey Noemi first. When she realizes that a wormhole security flaw could save Genesis from Earth forever, she enlists him in the quest to save her world, and Noemi and Abel are off.
I’m not sure why, but every time I picked up this book from where I left off, I was surprised that it was good. Maybe it was the simple prose language (present tense, if that bugs you) and the linear plot, both of which I associate with less sophisticated stories. The truth is that there’s a lot going on in a book that takes on a staple of sci-fi, the question ‘can a robot be human?’ Defy the Stars is peppered with ethical dilemmas. Noemi’s mortally injured comrade rejects, for religious reasons, the medical support that Noemi is tempted to administer without her consent. As Noemi comes face-to-face with the perils of overpopulation and pollution, she wonders what Genesis is keeping itself beautiful for, if not to help other humans. These are not questions you expect from a book with sentences like “She clutches [her crucifix] tighter and wishes she didn’t feel so hollow inside. So small. So desperate for the life she’s already given up.” On a plus for the prose, the chapters narrated ‘over the shoulders’ of Noemi and Abel feel successfully different, and Abel’s chapters are an interesting blend of AI-thought processes and his budding sentience. Overall, though, I kept wanting a bit more depth of setting, and a plot that didn’t feel obliged to charge ahead quite so quickly.
But what about the romance? First, this book is advertised as Constellations #1, so don’t expect an HEA just yet. Still, Noemi and Abel won me over, and I say that as someone who’s read my share of both YA and AI books. Noemi and Abel feel authentically young (Abel, despite being in existence for over thirty years, has only a few years of sheltered experience). The author accomplishes the difficult task of giving a couple of kids a plausible galaxy-altering quest. Their naïveté also helps explain both their single-mindedness and their obliviousness to the plot twist I saw coming many chapters in advance. Abel is thoughtful, loyal, and curious and his mech abilities (strength, reflexes, memory) are quite appealing. Noemi is competent and ethical, a stand-out heroine in a subgenre that often gets sucked into ‘who can kick the most ass?’ I wasn’t surprised to see them come to like each other, because I liked both of them myself.
The book is missing that intangible magic that makes me crave turning pages at the expense of my daily life, but it was still enjoyable. I look forward to the continuing adventures of Noemi and Abel.