One of the things that I found most fascinating about Adam Oyebanji's debut novel Braking Day was the way in which the book gradually layers its themes atop the events of the story's surface-level plot. As the reader uncovers the true nature of the novel's world, the novel in turn builds an elaborate setting which slowly comes to imbue the main narrative with added weight and significance.
Set aboard the generational starship Archimedes during the final months of the ship's voyage, Braking Day in part depicts a social conflict that develops among the vessel's crew. Specifically, much of the novel takes the form of a coming-of-age story focusing on Ravinder MacLeod (more commonly known as simply "Ravi"), a young engineer-in-training who is studying to become one of the Archimedes's officers. Having come from a low-status family residing in one of the ship's rearmost habitat rings, as the novel opens Ravi has defied not only the wishes of his now deceased father by taking the difficult officer's entrance exam, but also challenged the casual bigotry that his teachers and classmates in the officer training program routinely levy upon him due to his family name. (The MacLeods regularly face discrimination aboard the Archimedes due to an unjust reputation for being a family of career criminals.)
Despite the social obstacles that Ravi faces, a still more significant date looms in the immediate future of the Archimedes itself. Having departed from Earth for the distant star of Tau Ceti more than a century prior, as the book opens the Archimedes is preparing for the titular "Braking Day": the long awaited date at which the ship—along with the two vessels that have accompanied it from Earth (the Bohr and the Chandrasekhar)—will slowly rotate around, and then fire their now ancient engines in a carefully calculated year-long burn that will expend the last of their fuel, but also bring them into orbit around the unknown world that their crew's distant ancestors set out to colonize 132 years prior.
It's in this context that Ravi experiences the inciting incident of the novel. When his engineering training sends him to a long-abandoned region of the Archimedes to conduct a preliminary examination of the ship's engines, a mysterious tapping sound on the outer hull draws him to an airlock. There, Ravi finds himself quite literally face-to-face with a sight he cannot explain—a girl floating freely in deep space without a space suit, smiling back at him through the ship's window. Instantly believing this sight to have been a hallucination, Ravi seeks out the advice of his perpetually cheerful cousin Roberta MacLeod (or "Boz" for short)—a woman who in contrast to Ravi has embraced her socially prescribed role as an outlaw amongst the Archimedes's crew. Indeed, Boz does not hesitate to use her formidable skills as both a hacker and a thief to help her cousin uncover the true nature of this so-called “ghost girl,” and understand whether or not this person really exists.
As intriguing as the main plot of Braking Day is, I think that one of the most fascinating elements of the story is the novel's setting, and specifically the skillful way in which Oyebanji explores the politics of his novel's world while the main narrative of his story develops. Not only is the Archimedes quickly established as a grittily realized realm in and of itself—a rigidly structured vessel whose very layout often reveals a detailed and nuanced history that Oyebanji casually illuminates via the perceptions of his characters—but as the central mystery regarding the nature and identity of the ghost girl builds, Oyebanji balances the pacing of this story with a more sedate and thoughtful examination of the ideals underlying this society and its politics.
There's one moment early in the story which I think provides an intriguing example of this. Shortly after beginning to investigate the mystery of the ghost girl with Boz, Ravi happens to attend a lecture in which his teacher in the Archimedes's officer training program (a character known only as Professor Warren) begins explaining to her class why it is that the Archimedes's officers have always banned the creation of Artificial Intelligence. Of course, the lecture in part functions as an aspect of Oyebanji's world building. Via this lesson, the reader quickly learns the story of how the Archimedes was originally a ship built by a group seeking to escape the rule of a hostile AI on Earth known as a LOKI (short for "Loosely Organized Kinetic Intelligence"). As a result, this group (later identified as an organization called "The Liberty Foundation") financed humanity's first mission into interstellar space, constructing the Archimedes, the Bohr, and the Chandrasekhar so as to ensure that these ships’ distant descendants could one day reach a world free of LOKI control.
Yet, as engaging as this backstory is, Oyebanji frames this history in a manner that also sets up a subtle but fascinating examination of the deeper politics that seem to govern life aboard the Archimedes in the novel’s present. Specifically, when explaining why LOKIs in particular are so dangerous to the ship, Warren describes to her class how, rather than producing a stereotypically dystopian realm in which humanity was ruled by machines, the LOKIs on Earth in fact brought about something of a golden age for humanity. In spite of this accomplishment, Warren nevertheless concludes that these machines were still a dire threat to civilization itself, saying:
“LOKI in its day was a game-changer. It allowed artificial intelligence to do a couple of things it had been really bad at.” She ticked them off with her fingers.
“One, deal with stuff it had never seen before; and two, even more importantly, use initiative in a way similar to humans. In less than a decade, LOKIs took over all aspects of human life, from surgical interventions to running the bureaucracy. Living standards went through the roof; people were freed to pursue their dreams. They called it a golden age. And maybe it was.
“But it also upended the power structure. The richer and more LOKI-dependent a country became, the more vulnerable it was to cyberattacks. A hacked LOKI surgeon could slit your throat; a hacked LOKI bureaucrat could bring down a government. And cyberwarfare is cheap: a few clever people working with a few clever LOKIs could immobilize a command HQ or melt the engines of an aircraft carrier. Size no longer mattered. A trade dispute between Tanzania and China brought China to its knees. And what Tanzania did to China, other countries did to the United States, and the European Federation, and India.” (p. 42)
While the prospect of a world in which robotic surgeons might be hacked to slit their patients' throats is one which Ravi himself later reflects that he finds terrifying, Oyebanji uses this scene to foreshadow the political themes of his novel. These threats are technically not the reason Warren gives for why LOKIs are dangerous. Instead, in the above paragraph Warren brings up the harm which LOKIs could pose to individual humans merely as symptoms of the true threat she feels these entities represent: when explaining to her class why they must be outlawed entirely, she says specifically that LOKIs "upended the power structure" on Earth.
That is, it is the ability of LOKIs to upend social power structures that Warren identifies as most serious, not the individual threats that LOKIs may have posed to humans in the past. Because of this, Warren's lecture reveals something quite significant about the Archimedes, which is that any act which risks upending the ship's power structure is instantly perceived as dangerous by those in charge.
It's in this context that, as Braking Day approaches and the crew begins preparing for the beginning of the end of their ship's mission, many also begin contemplating the power structures governing their own society, and questioning how (or even if) these structures should be upended now that their ship is nearing its destination. The deeply political nature of this tension is established in a scene appearing very early on, when Ravi discusses his hopes of becoming a ship's officer with one of his uncles—a man who very overtly dismisses Ravi's ambitions by claiming that Braking Day will result in a kind of social revolution for the crew on the whole.
“Braking Day’s coming,” he said, as if Ravi was the only person in the fleet who didn’t know. “This whole beast of a ship is going to turn around, point its ass at the Destination Star, and . . . Boom! The drive goes off for a whole sarding year!” His eyes glowed at the thought. A powerful, heavily tattooed arm wrapped itself around Ravi’s shoulder, like some gigantic Homeworld snake. “We slow down. We drop into orbit around Destination World, and we land. Mission accomplished!” The arm began to crush him with merciless glee. “And you know what happens then?”
“No, Uncle.” Ravi rolled his eyes. “I’m sure I haven’t got a clue.”
“No more officers!” Torquil roared, banging the table and laughing. “No more officers!” (p. 25)
In the following paragraph Ravi quickly points out to Torquil that, even after Braking Day, it will likely be years before anyone leaves the Archimedes and manages to set foot on the surface of their Destination World (hence why his ambition of becoming an officer is not in fact pointless). But Torquil's words nevertheless undeniably establish that Braking Day is a radical political event for many aboard the ship.
The way in which Torquil views Braking Day is contrasted with the way many higher ranking officers on the ship seem to view the same event—they see it not as a social revolution, or even the culmination of more than a hundred years of work in the way Ravi clearly does, but instead as something almost apocalyptic. In one particularly fascinating scene, Ravi discusses the looming reality of Braking Day with one of his classmates, Sofia Ibori. Whereas Torquil was shown to be eagerly awaiting Braking Day due to his desire to finally escape the rule of the ship's officers, Sofia (a person coming from a long line of ship's officers herself, and who was guaranteed a place in the officer training program from birth onward) views the eventual dissolution of the Archimedes's strict social hierarchy of crewmembers and officers with a mixture of fear or even anger:
“Destination World is going to change us because planets aren’t starships. Planets sard you up. We’ll end up like Homeworld, with murders and crime and everyone looking out for themselves.” She was fully animated now, her eyes gleaming with passion. “It’s the ship that keeps us together. The ship that makes us our best selves. If people don’t do their jobs here, other people die. Crappy engineering repair? People die. No-good botanists? People die. Incompetent purser? People die. And everyone knows it.” She put a hand on his wrist, the grip firm, insistent. “Up here, we’re all in this together. Down there? Well . . . ” Her voice trailed off. Indescribably sad and more than a little angry. (p. 104)
The differing perspectives that the crew and officers of the Archimedes hold toward Braking Day become especially significant as the plot progresses further, and a conflict begins to build amongst the ship's various citizens regarding whether or not Braking Day should be canceled entirely. On one side resides the majority of the Archimedes's crew and officers—individuals like Torquil or Ravi who view Braking Day as a monumental accomplishment that should be celebrated. On the other resides a small but high-status faction eagerly working to ensure the indefinite continuation of the Archimedes's flight in deep space so as to preserve their own social status.
Throughout all of this, Ravi's sightings of the ghost girl grow more common, with the figure appearing within the ship itself, first waving at him from a distance, and then later appearing at his side while speaking in a voice he cannot hear. In turn, Ravi's and Boz's investigations of this figure soon draw them both unwittingly into a conflict between the Archimedes and a previously unknown party—a mysterious vessel which left Earth for Tau Ceti shortly after their ship did, but whose original crew seems to have been motivated by a fundamentally different ideology than that of the Archimedes's anti-LOKI ancestors. This eventually results in Ravi and Boz desperately working to contact this other ship before a battle breaks out between the authorities of both vessels. The citizens of each of these two vastly different societies face a future in which they will either overcome the propaganda of prior generations or destroy one another in a senseless act of violence.
By its ending chapters, Braking Day has established itself as a densely paced but also lyrical story about a small group of characters struggling to learn the true nature of their societies and histories, and in the process find a way to question the ideas that their life contexts have taught them are unquestionable. Taking an initially familiar sci-fi premise about a generational starship whose crew fled a dystopian world, Oyebanji skillfully brings forth a story whose political themes emerge from the plot and setting to produce an adventure novel that examines the politics of social privilege, and the way in which an individual's context can influence or even dictate their perceptions of reality.
Maybe it's for this reason that, despite the gritty and intricately imagined nature of Braking Day's setting, there's something fittingly surreal about the mystery that touches off this novel's plot. In the end, Braking Day follows characters who are forced to confront the true nature of the rigidly defined world in which they live, and who ultimately do so due to a chance encounter with a person floating (quite literally) outside of it.