Braking Day by Adam Oyebanji
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is a debut novel, and a very fine one. The author takes the trope of the generation ship and puts a unique spin on it, exploring the culture of a fleet of generation ships a hundred and thirty-two years into their voyage, when they're coming up on the titular Braking Day. This is a major maneuver wherein they will flip their ships and fire up their drive for the final approach to the Destination Star. But the fleet of three ships has explosive secrets that are about to come to the surface, and in the process the reasons why they left Earth will be exposed and the future of the fleet will be decided.
There's a lot going on here, from the culture of the fleet (water is used as currency instead of money, and the protagonist, engineer Ravi McLeod, spends a lot of his time crawling in the bowels of his ship, the Archimedes, without having sufficient water in his account to clean himself up) and the splintering factions therein, to the inevitable aging of a fleet of hundred-year-old ships and their closed recycling and ecosystems starting to break down. The story proper starts with a riveting first chapter, where Ravi goes one of the engine rooms at the rear of the Archie (the ship is about forty miles long, with habitat wheels rotating around a central spine, protected at the front by a kilometer-wide shield) and starts hearing tapping noises. He looks through a porthole and sees what he thinks must be a hallucination--a young blond woman floating in vacuum without a spacesuit.
But the woman is real, and unraveling her mystery sets Ravi and his cousin, master hacker Roberta "Boz" McLeod, against the hierarchy of the fleet and the secrets it protects. The people aboard the ships are the descendants of the First Crew, who left an Earth taken over and ruled by AIs (here called LOKIs, standing for "Loosely Organized Kinetic Intelligence," which admittedly gave my Asgard-loving heart a bit of a chuckle). The inhabitants firmly reject any kind of artificial intelligence, opting to use cybernetic implants to create a networked hivemind. But as Ravi and Boz discover, there is another ship out there--the Newton--hunting the fleet. The Newton was isolated from the rest decades ago, after an outbreak of plague onboard that the other ships refused to help them with, for fear of the contagion spreading. The Newton survivors have never forgotten. Their society is also structured as a polar opposite--the ship is run by a LOKI, and the inhabitants hate the rest of the fleet's "cyborgs."
This societal clash is one of the most interesting parts of the book. Ravi and Boz are trying to prevent a war--the Newton is a more heavily armored and advanced ship, and has a fleet of protective "dragons," warships constructed from some of the habitat wheels after the plague and its attendant population crash and crewed by fully autonomous LOKIs. (I admit when those were first mentioned I thought, really? We're getting some sort of space-dwelling mythological creatures here? but the dragons were actually pretty cool.) With Braking Day fast approaching, the fleet is locked into its mission--the aging ships cannot continue crossing deep space for much longer, despite another faction onboard, the Bon Voyagers, who insist that space is now their natural home and eschew any human presence on a planet.
All this makes for a fast-paced, fascinating stew. If I had one wish, it would be that the author had explored the ramifications of his societal and hierarchal clashes a bit more deeply. Especially at the climax, the antagonist's motivations, while plausible, are a bit out of left field. But these are minor quibbles. This is a satisfying story and an author to keep an eye on.
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