It's surprising how rarely a true God shows up in science fiction. For a genre so fascinated by the mysteries of the universe, SF often seems reluctant to speculate about the existence of a great almighty. Classic novels such as C.S. Lewis's Space Trilogy or Olaf Stapledon's Star Maker aside, God-like entities seem, more often than not, to be viewed as bad Star Trek clichés, as though the genre insists on denigrating such beings to the status of highly advanced aliens or artificial intelligences.
It's good then to see that Dark Space, the fourth novel by Australian writer Marianne de Pierres, is one of those rare examples of SF that sits firmly in the "taking God seriously" camp. The Sole entity at the heart of this galaxy-spanning series is a great big MacGuffin of a deity that is thrust at us from the very first page as being something so utterly unique and alien that it can only be classified as a god. The book's opening recounts in broad strokes the accidental discovery of Sole by the drug-addled wastrel Jo-Jo Rasterovick, a character who claims to have been brought back to life by this new-found divine being:
After Jo-Jo Rasterovick returned to inhabited space, news spread through the Nations of the Orion Sentients that he had encountered a new being. Governments sent envoys escorted by nuclear-armed warships to meet and greet. It was concluded that the mysterious entity—quickly given the name Sole—that had reanimated Mr Rasterovick was not only benign but of an order of intelligence greater than anything previously known or imagined.
Sole, it appeared, was God. (p. 3)
When the story opens, it is on a universe that has been completely transformed by the entity's existence. Sole, it seems, is happy to "share information with the Sentients of Orion," so long as it is on a "strict system of barter: one clearly delineated feat of cleverness on the part of the Sentients in exchange for new knowledge or a key to knowledge" (p. 4).
One of the first characters we're introduced to, Tekton, is just one of the many potential "God-heads" battling it out amongst his peers for the prestigious honour of communicating with God. It is a laudable goal, so much so that, though Tekton's thought processes have been completely altered by his training, they remain just human enough that we are able to understand the incredible lengths he feels he must go to to accomplish his goals, no matter how questionable they may sometimes seem.
It's a great way to launch a new series, especially for a writer who seems keen to step away from the shadow of her earlier work. De Pierres's first trilogy, centered on Parish Plessis, was SF of a very different kind: sassy post-apocalyptic thrillers that, though filled with great zeal, lacked the philosophical depth that makes this new series so promising. However, de Pierres's apparent unfamiliarity with her new subgenre of choice does occasionally shine through.
It's very apparent in the opening sections of the main plot, for example, the bulk of which take place on the distant desert-like world of Araldis (a reference to Dune's Arrakis, methinks). This tiny mining planet is ruled by an extremely male-orientated and Machiavellian society. Sitting out in the middle of nowhere, it is only thanks to the planet's small fleet of mining ships, commanded by the Carabinare, that it is able to keep in touch with the rest of the galaxy. The Baronessa Mira Fedor is the first aristo (person from the ruling class) in a generation to have been born with a gene that will allow her to communicate directly with the biozoon creatures at the heart of the planet's spacecraft. She is also the first ever female to have been born with the gift, a fact that is deemed totally unacceptable by the planet's Principe (king). When, at her graduation ceremony, it is announced that the gene will instead be transferred from Mira to the Principe's son, Trinder Pelligrini, Mira has little choice but to go on the run.
This storyline is intercut with scenes of her would-be successor, the lazy, self-centered Trinder, heir to the entire planet. As a punishment for a drug-fuelled act of stupidity that goes horribly wrong, Trin's father sends him to act as an aide for a local security officer. Since Trin is the son of the Principe, however, no one wants to give him anything to do, meaning that he spends most of his time looking through old security files and digging up random bits of dirt on his family.
And so the pieces are in play: Mira hiding from the law and Trin being bored out of his skull, intercut with (apparently unrelated) scenes of potential God-head Tekton as he strives to better his peers.
And at first, it has to be said, I was disappointed. Following the majesty of Dark Space's opening, the "galaxy-wide intrigue" that followed (to quote the book's blurb) seemed neither particularly galaxy-spanning nor intriguing. Mira is too timid and uptight to have much of an impact on her surroundings, since all she wants to do is hide and complain about the terrible injustice that has been leveled against her. Trin is better, his early chapters coming across almost Gibson-like in their nihilistic portrayal of a care-free youth with more money than sense. But even he is too caught up in himself to make any real difference to the plot. The whole thing seems somewhat lacking in scope.
But stick with the book and something strange happens: it gets good. Damned good:
A deafening explosion shook the room, knocking Mira to the floor, against Trin. After pushing him away, she scrambled for her boots and ran to the door.
"Stay inside," he shouted at her. But she ignored him, flinging the door open. (p. 172)
Literally in the space of this single paragraph, the novel undergoes a dramatic shift in focus, as Araldis finds itself under attack from a horde of invading insectile aliens called Saqr. The sleepy backwater planet finds itself thrust into the very heart of galactic politics, and the very same stagnant, self-centered characters we've been lumbered with for so many pages suddenly come into sharp relief as they find themselves fighting for their lives. Gone is the gentle post-feminist political wrangling of the first half of the book, to be replaced with simple survivalist fiction descended from the likes of The Poseidon Adventure.
Turning the threat level up to maximum at such a crucial moment is nothing short of a master-stroke on de Pierres's part. It's clearly a style of writing that she is comfortable with, too, as she really comes into her own. Take this evocative passage from the heart of the crisis:
Around her a chant started up.
"PELLEGRINI! WE WANT FOOD!"
The chant rippled outward.
Word spread through the crowd. A Pellegrini had been let inside when the whole of Loisa was out here starving. They latched onto a purpose and the focus gave them energy.
A brawny, filthy man on her right shouted in her ear. "We'll get yer little 'un back for yer."
The crowd was still chanting. A roar. Mira watched parts of the fence-line ripple under the force of their pushing. Any moment it would buckle and then people would be trampled in the surge. Perhaps some had already. She slapped the big man on his shoulder. "They'll be crushed," she screamed into his ear.
He stared down into her face. "Too late." He gripped the fence, adding all his strength to that of the others. (p. 230)
As is often the case, the real threat to the survivors comes from other survivors, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the above segment. This is gritty fiction at its best: a snapshot of how things might really be at ground zero during a crisis that comes completely out of left field. Scenes of rape, and brutal hardship, ride roughshod over the stilted high-brow ethics of the society set up in the first part of the book, highlighting the characters' descent to near-barbarianism all the more clearly. It is a welcome return to the very best aspects of de Pierres's earlier work.
It's also enhanced by the Machiavellian world that de Pierres has created in Araldis. A backwater society where men hold all the power is certainly an interesting post-feminist reprisal of look-how-far-we've-come type fiction, but it's the Italian references that liberally pepper the novel that help to put flesh onto the bones of this desert world. For example, de Pierres refers to Mira's "sorella," instead of her sister, her "ragazzo" or "bino" instead of child, and you can't read a single page without running over "aristos,” "grinkos,” "Principes,” "Ciprianos,” "Carabinares", or just simple sentences like "Si, si, Capitano." (p. 282). It's a trick that looks easy but for all that is no less effective at bringing the culture to life. This is a world with history, it says—an ingrained Italian culture subtly woven through everything from the words that are used to the formation of the upper echelons of society. It feels like a world that's been truly lived in, which means when de Pierres decides to crush it all to pieces, the loss is all the more palpable.
Over the next few books, de Pierres will no doubt build on this start, revealing to us exactly why this attack happened as it did and what role the tiny world of Araldis really plays in the galaxy's (and Sole's) larger plans. In Dark Space, while trying to prove that she can broaden her horizons and deal with issues outside the immediate, de Pierres does occasionally separate herself from what it was that made her first novels such good reads: her simple ability to tell a story. Occasionally, the net is cast slightly too narrow, by which I mean that the gap between the galaxy-spanning presence of God and this tiny desert world seems simply too vast to match the two together; but in the novel's second half, it's very easy not to care about such things as you sit back and simply allow yourself to be carried along for the ride.
R.J. Burgess is from Crawley, West Sussex and has wanted to be a writer for most of his life.