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Driving the Deep, Suzanne Palmer 03 November 2021

2020 SF, second of its series. Fergus has got back to his found-family, the Shipmakers of Pluto; but when he goes to Earth to tie off one last bit of unfinished business, things suddenly get desperately complicated again.

All right, the beginning of this book feels as though it's deliberately piling problem on problem. Fergus goes to the storage unit where he'd stashed his cousin's stolen motorcycle, only to find that it's not there, and in fact it's full of stolen art instead. And then he's grabbed by an ex-cop looking into the stolen art. And then he gets a signal that the Shipmakers have been attacked, and the ex-cop comes along for the ride. And then…

"Vee, I need you to bounce a call on the fast lines to Crossroads Station in the Ohean system," he told the ship. "My friends Maha and Qai. I think I told you about them on the way home from Cernee?"

"You told me stories, yes," the ship answered. "You told me that the last time you asked them for a favor, they stuffed you into a crate of biologically contaminated frozen cow fetuses."

"Well, they cleaned it first," Fergus said.

"Good friends, then," Venetia's Sword said.

"Vee, was that sarcasm?" Fergus asked.

"I am certain I would not know," the ship said. "Opening a fast transmission packet. What do you need it to say?"

Well, then the main plot starts. The people who attacked the Shipmakers seem to have had specific motives, and those motives would logically lead to other actions too, and some of those other actions seem to have been happening… so to find out more Fergus ends up getting a job as a driver for one of the cargo-hauling craft that shift people and goods up and down the three great bores through the ice of Enceladus, and around the ocean below.

Along the walls there were large screens showing pleasant underwater scenes; he stopped in his tracks and did a double take as a school of fish swam past. "Hey!" he said.

"It's to remind you where you are, but not really," Stani said. "More friendly to imagine you're surrounded by happy fishes and turtles than a vast, lifeless, crushing void, yes?"

So yeah, this is what I read science fiction for – that intersection of real-world interesting science with well-drawn people. It's not just "let's do heroic engineering in the alien ocean", and it's not just "let's look into characters while something alien happens in the background"; it's a melding process that asks, given a reason for humans to be here in the first place, how will they live and work? How will the environment affect them, spending months in a place with no natural light where you can never see the sky and stepping outside a habitat without an armoured suit will kill you? (No, they don't have virtual environment escapism.)

Fergus blinked at him. "Uh, no? I feel awkward asking, but Stani said you might have something to help me sleep. You know, just to catch up a bit."

Van Heer reached into his desk again and set a small vial in front of Fergus. "One pill will knock you out for six to eight hours, deep enough to stay asleep through just about anything short of a fire alarm. Two pills will leave you a drooling mess on the floor for most of a day, and you wouldn't hear that same fire alarm. Three will have you heaving up not just your stomach contents but possibly some organs too, and you probably wouldn't notice if you were what was on fire. Four will just make you dead. There are three pills in this bottle, because the Bastards Above don't like it when I help kill their pilots. In a week, if you're still having trouble, come back and see me and I'll give you three more."

So while the actual villains of the piece turn out to be surprisingly conventional, the way they act and the plans they make are all influenced by this place. Yes, there's a short but clearly loving description of how the ice bores work, with their system of airlocks and gas bubbles; but at the same time we see this through the eyes of someone who's learning how to navigate it and observing how corporate and personal priorities have been balanced in the design of the safety systems (not well).

There's another volume out, and some dangling plot strands here, but this story is basically complete in itself. If it reminded me of anything, it was The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet; I think it's the importance of found-family, the attempt to live by one's own ethical code, and the friction that gets generated simply by people having slightly different priorities and preferences, quite separately from some of them being outright villains.

I liked Finder with reservations, but this is excellent; Fergus's personal story hasn't dropped out of sight, indeed it's a significant plot initiator, but it's better mixed with the stuff happening in the now. Definitely a contender for my favourite book of the year.

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Previous in series: Finder | Series: Finder Chronicles | Next in series: The Scavenger Door

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