This review is part of my judging effort for SPSFC2. For a little intro to the whole thing and an explanation of my judging style, see this practice review.
Next up for the SPSFC’s 2022-2023 semi-finals, Team Space Leftovers is proud to present Exin Ex Machina, Asterion Noir Book 1 (aka. Amaranthe 11), by G. S. Jennsen.
Exin Ex Machina, Asterion Noir (Amaranthe 11), oh boy what a title. It all checks out though. It basically means “departure from the machine” or “out of the machine” in Latin, which is fun. Asterion is, I believe, Greek (“the stars”), and noir is of course French (“black / darkness / night”). As for Amaranthe, “Amaranthe as a girl’s name is of Greek origin, and the meaning of Amaranthe is “unfading”,” according to Google. What can I tell you, I got lazy towards the end there. The rest was totally me edu-flexing, though. I actually thought Amaranth was a song by Nightwish. Now I think about it, they’re probably referencing the same thing, although an amaranth is also a type of plant (still means “never-fading” though, and it’s in the lyrics of the song too). And don’t even get me started on armoranths from The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.
But I digress. Hugely.
Our story opens on a … kid? A robot? Our main protagonist, coming to with amnesia in an alley. There’s been some strange issue with her base programming, and she has no idea who she is. The fact that this prologue sort of coded Nika as a child made things all sorts of confusing for me for quite a long stretch of this book, but the simple fact is, there aren’t that many kids in this world.
Five years later Nika is head of some kind of rebel gang causing trouble for the establishment. The world slowly reveals itself to the reader and it becomes clear that these aren’t humans, not really. In this seven-hundred-thousand-years-in-the-future interstellar culture, the “Asterions” are considered robots by a lot of the alien species, and they habitually reload into new bodies / minds on the regular, every 300 years at the least-regular. Nika is one of the only newborn single-life people anywhere, and that’s only because she’s lost her past backups and so kind of acts like a kid, at least in terms of knowledge and experience. Not a newborn kid, or a five-year-old kid, but … something else.
How does Asterion civilisation even function? It seems close enough to humanity to be jarring, but I found myself wanting more and more to just dive deep and explore the reality of a post-human synthetically enhanced culture where people were functionally immortal and could be backed up and renewed at will – and minds could be re-written, erased, or placed in storage by the shadowy Guides. It felt like there was a lot more to explore there and the ramifications of their way of life would be far greater than what we see … but there are all sorts of other factors at play here as well.
The fossil fuel / whale oil of this civilisation is kyoseil, the fibres of which enable the density of data storage and transmission that is required for reincarnation. It comes from a planet, Chosek, inhabited by inconvenient “primitives” … but this isn’t the point of the story either, just more backdrop. Which I love. The tale is interspersed with technical code-fragments that I confess I skimmed, but I got the gist.
Where were we? While Nika is acclimating to her new life and seeking justice for those forgotten by the Guides’ grand plans, some high muckety-mucks are looking for her. At first introduction – like I said, I was assuming Nika was a kid at this point – I thought Maris and Dashiel were her parents. When I later found out that Nika and Dashiel were damn-near-eternal lovers, it gave me a bit of whiplash but then I rolled with it.
It was a fascinating look at the possibilities of consciousness as entirely mutable data (although the phrase “maybe if you dialed down the autistic processes” made me splutter), and bodies as readily-renewable vessels. The fluid nature of identity and self, and how that search can be technology driven, all woven into a relatively simple story of amnesia-suffering protagonist up against a secret conspiracy that goes all the way to the top. Indeed, we just begin to blow the lid off the whole thing when the story ends. A cliffhanger, but a satisfying one.
Nika makes some pretty dumb calls, the “betrayal” towards the end in the central tower was all a bit forced and contrived for the purposes of plot drama, but all in all I liked the characterisation going on. it was an exciting story that said very cool things about the human (“human”) condition. Speculative fiction at its most definitive.
In a classic cyberpunk and (literally right there in the name) noir world reminiscent of Blade Runner and Altered Carbon, sexy times abound in theory, off-page, and our protagonist has a couple of sexes. One nice sex with a casual boyfriend, and one very good sex indeed with her thousands-of-years life partner who really knows where her g-circuit is. All rather pleasant and heart-warming, really. Three chrome-plated robo-boners with LED-lit tips out of a possible five.
This one was a gory outing but the dismemberment and brutality was not necessarily permanent and therefore it all got a bit meaningless. As it explains in the story, people (Asterions) don’t generally bother doing gross violent shit to each other because the victims just re-up to a new body. Still, there’s some violence. Two quivering flesh-gobbets out of a possible five.
The emergent story has a lot of weirdness. I enjoyed the worldbuilding and backdrop and history a lot more than I enjoyed the narrative vessel through which we explored said worldbuilding and backdrop and history – and that’s saying something, because I was very happy with the surface plot as well. The extended lives and practices of the Asterions are strange, and – like I said – I concede defeat with the code stuff. I’m sure it means something but yeah, I sort of just sifted through it for some sign of a familiar clue. The Guides, and the plan they’re executing for the purposes of the wider series narrative, is … I mean, why aren’t they building more generation ships and getting out of there? Huh. The WTF-o-meter is giving this one seventeen kilobruhs where the red line for mind-blowing is somewhere around the twenty-five kilobruh point.
My Final Verdict
I did refer to this story as “Altered Carbon copy” at the outset, and that didn’t really go away – but I still liked it. More than I liked Altered Carbon, to be honest. The glimpses we get into the real story of the Asterions was fun – are they sentient robots (like the aliens called them) or post-humans? Where is the line, once technological and AI integration is complete? This was a well-written and very good story. I don’t know if I want to face the angst of a next book with its potential for Dashiel finding out about the casual she-didn’t-have-a-memory boyfriend, but this story in and of itself was fun to read. Four stars on the Amazon / Goodreads scale.