RogerBW's Blog

Barbary Station, R. E. Stearns 26 August 2020

2017 SF, first of its series. Adda the hacker and Iridian the engineer hijack a colony ship and take it to her brother and the infamous Captain Sloane, who are living the high life on Barbary Station. Only it's not like that, and the station's AI is trying to kill them.

This should be the sort of book I love: heroic people trying to survive as the space station they're on tries to kill them. But somehow it came out as a near miss, and I think that description is a lot of the problem. In the immediate sense I could always work out what was going on in a scene… but when it came to gluing things together, to try to get an overall sense of the shape of the station and how much work it is to get from here to there, it never quite worked for me. (This isn't helped by the strong suggestion that the station's engines need to keep firing constantly to maintain spin gravity.) Meanwhile, nobody has an electrically insulated space suit, even though in the real world it's easier to build them like that than conductive.

And while Iridian is an ex-soldier, her specialty of "shieldrunner" seems to be to carry and deploy a shield that's pretty much everything-proof if your footing is firm enough. This used to be done from some kind of legged vehicle (powered armour?), but she's still got the shield, and apparently this job requires a lot of running… it ends up feeling like a list of convenient attributes rather than an actual bit of worldbuilding of a future military.

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Which is a shame, because the bits that do work are very good. Iridian, as well as being the brawn of the partnership, is the one who does the social manipulation, building bridges with the pirates and others even as stressors increase and both the societies on the station and the precarious habitats they're living in start to fall apart. Adda, thoroughly introverted, works her way through the network via an odd drug-assisted virtual interface… but some of the details felt a lot like experiences I've had while trying to work on a machine that allowed only partial access, piecing together information. This is one of the very few books about computer intrusion where it actually feels like computer intrusion.

There are many holes in the world-building and too often the SF feels like background detail, sprayed in without being thoroughly thought through. Then you get a really good bit of problem-solving the AI's behaviour; this isn't just a thriller with "space" pasted into the background, it's a story that needs its setting to work.

There was a bit of a wrench as I adjusted myself from the lesbian space pirate book I was hoping for to the one I got, but this ends up being rather good in odd and unexpected ways and in spite of its flaws.

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Series: Shieldrunner Pirates | Next in series: Mutiny at Vesta

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