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Iris by William Barton and Michael Capobianco

Published by Foundation Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

In many ways this novel reads like a preliminary to the authors' more recent Alpha Centauri, given that it deals with many of the same themes. Like that novel, it deals with humans discovering the artifacts of a long-vanished race that seems to have died of despair and loneliness as much as of any external destructive force. And of course there is the collection of troubled and dysfunctional characters who make up the crew of the human exploratory spacecraft, and who discover in the process of exploring the alien artifact that no matter how far they may travel, they will still bring with them the problems that are within themselves.

The setting is almost cyberpunkish -- nation-states have ceased to exist, replaced by megacorporations, with the nearest equivalent to a government being the Contract Authority which ensures that contracts between individuals and between corporations are fulfilled and punish breaches. The society has that run-down feel that I tend to associate with cyberpunk, with a general air of decay both in the material culture and the social relationships, existing alongside super-advanced developments in computer technology, particularly direct interfaces between human minds and computers or networks. In fact, in the beginning it seems like the characters spend as much time in their electronic dreamworlds as in the material one, to the point when I often had to consciously think about whether a given scene was taking place in the material world or in one or another of their electronic dreamworlds (this problem was exacerbated by the frequent flashbacks to the troubled earlier years of several of the characters).

Every single one of the characters brings major psychological issues along on the voyage. For instance Brenden Sealock, who combines genius-level computer programming ability with a very un-geekish physicality is a seething mass of aggressive urges barely reined in by the knowledge that if he doesn't keep them under control, he's going to end up in an even bigger mess. Achmet Aziz el-Tabari, who calls himself Demogorgon in the Illimitor world of fantasy he's created, is a creative genius tormented by the fact that his homosexuality led him to be rejected by his very traditional Arab family. Temujin Krzakwa rebelled against the rigid lockstep regimentation of Lunar society by illegally abandoning a contract, and by becoming fat and repellant in his personal appearance. Jana Li Hu once made life a nightmare of abuse for other children in her school. Even the man who funded the expedition, John Cornwell, is struggling with his own personal demons after the un-looked-for success of a work he had created, one played not with ordinary instruments but directly into the listener's mind by induction.

Their ship, Deepstar, had originally been making its way to Neptune to claim a stake in a colony there when news came in of the mysterious gas-giant planet Iris and its attendant system of moons which were wandering into the Solar System, having drifted sunless through the depths of space for unknown ages. Being in a position to do so, Cornwell decided to redirect Deepstar to this mysterious new addition to the Solar System, with the hopes that he and his companions might be able to achieve even greater riches by settling a brand new planet's moons.

At first all seems to be going well, and they lay out their claims for pieces of land along the giant crater that marks the surface of one of the moons. But then a visit to one of the other moons reveals the existence of an artifact of most definitely non-human origin. Closer examination reveals it to be the vertical rudder of some kind of atmospheric shuttlecraft made of a material unknown to human science, and clearly of unimaginable antiquities -- as in a billion or more years old.

One of the greatest difficulties in portraying an alien artifact, and particularly one of a civilization whose technology is supposed to be as far in advance of ours as our own is to that of a Neolithic farming village, is how to do it convincingly yet comprehensible. On one hand, the very fact that it is extraordinarily advanced means that it should be beyond our ability to comprehend. On the other, it cannot be portrayed in a way that will leave the reader bewildered and frustrated.

The solution Barton and Capobianco rely upon is to provide very vivid sensory detail on what the mysterious devices within the shuttle do, to the point that it is completely believable that the characters should even able to make use of some of them for their own purposes, but make it clear that the characters are quite at a loss as to how they could possibly work. For instance, they are able to use several different transportation devices to move around within the ruined shuttle, mostly by trial and error (and surprisingly enough, without anybody getting badly hurt in the process), but it is clear that all their theorizing about the mechanisms behind them is pretty much groping in the dark.

In the heart of the shuttle they find a glimpse of a communications device that gives them a glimpse of the strange creatures that once operated it. And in accordance with John W. Campbell's dictum of "give me a being that things as well as a man, but not like a man," they are truly alien beings, with a vastly different biology, including their sensory and communication capacities.

But no sooner than they have made this discovery, they come to realize that the shuttle's mechanisms are undergoing a rapid decay. Apparently activating the recording also initiated some self-destruct sequence, or maybe the shuttle was somehow holding itself intact solely to transmit that final message. In any case, our doughty explorers don't have any time to wonder about the mechanism for the sudden deterioration of systems that have apparently remained on standby for longer than there has been multicellular life on Earth. Their first priority has to be getting the heck out of there before the collapsing systems trap them and kill them.

Back on the moon they're hoping to settle, they try to determine where the shuttle came from, and discover that an even bigger artifact lies in the heart of the gas-giant Iris. And that artifact may have been awakened by the shuttle, and it may be possible to communicate with it and find out some of useful secrets of this lost alien race and its technologies. The ever-impetuous Sealock sets forth to communicate with it, and disables key safeguards in hopes that he may eliminate interference that is making things difficult. Although he succeeds, establishing that the artifact at the core of Iris is in fact the shuttle's mothership and that its computer remains active and able to communicate the story of the ancient race that built it and created the race that was to operate it, his abandonment of standards safegards leads to his complete personality discharge into the systems of the ancient starship.

Meanwhile, Jana "borrows" the rover built to resemble a classic automobile of the 20th century and takes it on a disastrous trip around the gigantic crater which is that moon's central feature. By the time her unauthorized jaunt is discovered, she has succumbed to hypothermia. However, there is a slender hope that their super-advanced medical technology may be able to recover enough of her consciousness from her frozen brain that she can be restored to life, if a suitable receptor body can be located.

The obvious one is that of Brendon Sealock, lying in life support since his personality discharge. But even as they're transferring Jana's mind into Sealock's body, Demogorgon discovers that Sealock may have set up one more safeguard, one nobody thought about -- his own role in the creation of Demogorgon's Illimitor Universe. But to rescue Sealock, Demogorgon must place himself in mortal peril.

When I got to the climax, I was certain that we were going to be reading a story of Terrible Sacrifice, that someone was going to have to die -- after all, there is now one too many people for the number of bodies available. But Barton and Capobianco manage to bring forth not only a happy ending, but a triumphant one that promises even greater wealth and possibility for humanity in its expansion throughout the Solar System. Not to mention the possibility of a real future for the Seedees, the ancient race who were created to spread the seeds of life throughout the universe by the even more ancient Seeders.

Review posted December 20, 2009.

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