Sometimes, you have to be cruel to be kind. I fear that Gareth L. Powell's editors failed this test in the publication of Silversands. There is a lot going for this book, but there is also too much going on.
Humanity has discovered a network of wormhole gates, capable of accelerating colony ships to to light speed and delivering them to destinations unknown. There is/was a 'New United Nations', which initially opposed this travel (reminiscent of the global government and its attitudes in Dave Hutchinson's recent novella, The Push) but the asteroid ship Anastasia shouldered through the blockade and has founded the colony planet Silversands. The colony is ably described in the early chapters: a largely oceanic planet, emerging from an ice age, somewhat quiescent. The asteroid ship Anastasia provides ongoing support, with Earth-quality food grown aboard and the maintenance of orbital capability. The people of Silversands have a world to research and the technology to exploit its solar system—this looks like a great place to live, if potentially a little claustrophobic. For those in need of excitement, the occasional starship falls out of the star gates.
Events open with the starship Pathfinder, carrying cryogenically stored refugee colonists, emerging in the Silversands system. The ship experiences a malfunction which causes this "cargo" to start thawing and its captain calls on the people of Silversands for assistance. Powell rapidly introduces a constellation of names, but Avril Bradley is the only person from Pathfinder who becomes more than a job description. Most of the characters from the colony itself are caught in the tar of their own stereotypes. Jason Wiltshire works hard to overcome the debts of his drunken father, unaware that his co-pilot has fallen for him. Cale Christie is the retired cop, running a bar and recovering from cancer, who is called back to investigate a mystery surrounding the death of a former lover. Marcus Dalby is the rich industrialist with a murky past, a mission he can't let go of or complete. Patricia Lear is the leading scientist and honest administrator, who has fallen in love with Dalby.
There is not enough room in this short novel to let all of these characters breathe. They are distinct, which is a boon, but they reveal themselves almost as they leap onto the stage. For example, in the first two pages told from Marcus Dalby's perspective (pp. 61-63), we learn his private office is in a floating city ship which his company owns; that his business is building a Space Elevator; that he grew up on Mars and has agoraphobia; that he is a recluse despite the celebrity of his business success and that he is an agent for the New United Nations, this last being a secret from every person in the colony except his personal assistant. After that, there is nothing left to tell; Dalby executes the role which has been defined for him. Perhaps this is less painful than the attempt to shape a character through the story. The whole of Jason Wiltshire's sub-plot feels like emotional manipulation—particularly when he is fatally shot just after his girlfriend discovers she is pregnant yet turns up again for one last desperate act of revenge.
Fortunately there is Avril Bradley to lead us to the core of the novel. Although external to the colony, Avril is closer to Madelyn Walker, a scientist killed early in the colony's existence, than she knows. The mystery surrounding Madelyn Walker is carefully constructed, with Madelyn's avatar the most fully rounded character in the book. The quality of the writing, of the action, of the conception of the novel leaps whenever she is on stage. Madelyn's story, whilst somewhat melodramatic (her death was a result of overenthusiastic sabotage by a love rival), would, on its own, have been sufficient for the 160 pages available. Her thread piles on the tropes of recent SF, from nanotechnology to artificial intelligence virus, but draws the pieces together into an interesting shape. Her life is gradually revealed through the memories and arguments of a number of the other characters—and when they consider Madelyn, their own characters seem to deepen in reflection. It is a little odd that the avatar's existence in the substrate of the colony's technology has gone completely unnoticed, but her sudden revival into desperate action does make sense. The last pages of the book demonstrate that she is central to the plot, from the opening explosion on the Pathfinder—her sabotage to force the ship to spend more time in the Silversands system—to the method by which both she and that ship may yet escape the colony.
I submit that much of this tale could have been improved—but I could be accused of wanting the author to write a different book. The setting, though, could hardly be bettered for the story that Powell is telling, whilst the background generally uses the tools of the field well. Again, many of the standard tropes of our field are on parade, but they are in the service of the author. Life extension is taken as an almost everyday miracle, allowing a depth of back story and shared history for the characters which would be otherwise be outrageous. As in Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy (1994-1996), it also enables the first colonists to retain a role as active players. Indeed, here, they dominate the world, pushing the younger people to the margins of their society. The descriptions of Earth and the New United Nations are used primarily as signifiers of the desire to escape, whilst the star gates provide a method. Those gates remind me a little too much of Stargate, but Powell uses their randomness—and the possibility of understanding them—well.
And as the book closes, the star gates beckon. The ending wraps up the story neatly but not too tightly and opens a whole universe of stories. Like The Push, this book sticks close to the heart of SF experience, but unlike it, Silversands is a little too angular to slip down easily.
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