This review is part of my judging effort for the SPSFC. For a little intro to the whole thing and an explanation of my judging style, see this practice review.
Next up on the SPSFC list was A Star Named Vega, by Benjamin J Roberts.
What a fun story! It somehow managed to take a pair of teenage protagonists, and an interstellar-scale bit of worldbuilding and future history on a par with the prehistory of Dune, and make it work in an entertaining and very readable way.
Now, when I talk the big talk comparing the Vegaverse to Dune, I know that’s going to raise some eyebrows. Dune is one of the Sacred Texts, how dare I?
Well, fuck it. Come at me, nerds.
Besides, what I’m mostly talking about here is the Dune prequels, which I really quite liked and an awful lot of purist fusspots didn’t – specifically the Butlerian Jihad phase and the AI overlordship of the old human diaspora. Also, look, Dune is amazing but I don’t hold it in such reverence that I can’t say so when another book deserves to stand on the same shelf as it and not get beaten up by the Culture books and have its wallet stolen by the Foundation series.
Where the main Dune series is gothic and the Dune prequel series is Tim Burton gothic, however, A Star Named Vega is as colourful as a Paul Verhoeven adaptation of a Heinlein story. You know the one I mean. From that Alice in Wonderland meets Maleficent cover to the joyous post-scarcity utopian opening – that’s a lot of spiders! – to the slow but creepingly inevitable revelation of the big, dark questions underpinning paradise to the explosive ending, this book delivers. It’s fast and bright and full of cool science-fiction shit, and it’s just plain fucking entertaining.
Also it has a character named Brännström who likes semlor. So we have a little Swedish nod to go along with the Finnish nod I enjoyed in Shepherds. It made this little Australian exile in the Nordics very happy.
Compared to the easy interactions between the main protagonists, the ‘villains’ of the story seem a little stilted and one-dimensional – but that seems to be by design, as we learn more about the tragic history and the complex webs of propaganda and ignorance surrounding everybody. And while there was a certain amount of needless drama-add by the admittedly thirteen-year-old protagonist and her failure to divulge certain information … ehh, we’ll let it slide. It was earned, and it all turned out nicely. Or did it? I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.
The old philosophical dilemma of hardship vs. freedom; to remain primitive and in constant danger or to live safe as cattle; the idea that anyone who trades liberty for safety deserves neither … these are always timely questions for a global civilisation wading through the dark ages of social media and information technology and emergent ‘benevolent AI’ style advancement. While too much care and safety can be stifling – and in that, the glorious little seeds of chaos and the overall concept of the Arpex itself are very effective in dispelling such stasis – there is a lot to be said about well-meaning guidance and a nurturing, overruling vision. I don’t know, all I know is that humans are a savage species and something needs to domesticate us. We’re not going to domesticate ourselves.
Roberts does a good job walking the line between storytelling and soapbox-yelling, between drawing parallels to today’s news cycle and perpetual commercially-driven wars and making it all too much of an allegory. All the threads escalate and tie together, each character gets an arc of sorts, and you wind up caring about them all. Great job, and I want to read more stories from the Thirteen Suns.
The main characters were kids, and not particularly horny kids. The story didn’t lose anything for not having sex in it, because everyone had slightly more important things to be getting on with at the time. I’ll give A Star Named Vega a dreidel out of a possible horga’hn.
There was some fighting, some outright brutality, and one dude totally got cut just about in half by a femtoblade. Which frankly is what we like to see when Chekhov’s Femtoblade is introduced in the first act. Overall though, there’s not a huge amount of gore – just a suitable amount. Two-and-a-half flesh-gobbets out of a possible five.
I really enjoyed the slow reveal of the AI seeds and the interstellar civilisation they had created and now watched over and enabled. It wasn’t so much WTF as a dawning realisation that there was some shit going on. Lots of fun to watch it all unfold. Oh, there were some references to human digital transcription and posthumanism that made me think there could be more to talk about … but there are always other stories. At least I certainly hope there will be!
My Final Verdict
A well-earned four stars on the Amazon / Goodreads scale for A Star Named Vega. I really enjoyed this and I want to see more stories from the Thirteen Suns as soon as possible. Thanks for an entertaining and enjoyable read!