Meru by S.B. Divya
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is a science fiction romance that tackles some pretty heavy issues: the future of humankind following our disastrous Anthropocene Era; how, or if, humans should be punished and/or restricted for what they've done to the planet; and the complete realignment of thought as to life and consciousness and the necessity to minimize the human damage to both. All this is nestled inside a love story between a human woman and a genetically engineered cyborg/post-human Alloy named Vaha, who is basically a 120-meter long space mermaid capable of surviving in vacuum and creating her own wormholes to travel to other systems. (Don't worry, Vaha can also create a secondary body called an "incarn" which can hold her transferred consciousness, and can relate to and fall in love with the human protagonist Jayanthi.)
There is quite a bit of thoughtful and detailed worldbuilding here, and the author carefully examines the ratifications of her premise. This is set centuries in the future when the posthuman Alloys have taken over, saved and mostly restored planet Earth. Due to the Compact written at the start of the Alloy Era, humans are confined to the planet. Capitalism and exploration are things of the long-ago past; the alloys provide all human needs and human ambition is strictly discouraged. There's even a diagnosed syndrome called Aspiration and Avarice Disorder which can be treated in humans via gene therapy.
As the story starts, there's a newly discovered habitable planet called Meru that the Alloys are opening to research missions. One of our protagonists, Jayanthi, is uniquely suited to live on the planet due to her sickle cell anemia syndrome, which she has not used gene therapy to cure, as Meru's atmosphere has a higher oxygen percentage than Earth's. Jayanthi wants to demonstrate that humans should be permitted to explore the stars again, and an alloy named Hamsu manages to push through a research mission with Jayanthi at the center of it.
The alloy pilot Vaha is recruited to fly Jayanthi to Meru, and their connection and love story begins. (It's not quite insta-love, but it's close; their connection is immediate. They are both very young, twenty and twenty-two respectively. One wonders how long such a relationship can last, but the author does a good job of showing their deep feelings for each other.) But there are factions who want the mission to fail, and Vaha's former best friend Kaliyu, who harbors an irrational bias against humans, is recruited to sabotage the mission.
There are quite a few twisty plot turns here, as Vaha and Jayanthi are separated, Vaha suffers an accident that temporarily strips away most of her memory, and Jayanthi is abandoned on Meru. She manages to talk the artificially-intelligent constructs on the planet into taking her offworld, and ends up aboard another constructi, Chedi, a free agent who travels through the system. Jayanthi is also pregnant with her own genetically engineered child (a child bearing some of Vaha's genes) that she created to force the mission on Meru to continue. Once Vaha and Jayanthi are reunited and Vaha recovers (some) of her memory, they end up on the Nivid, the one permanent alloy construct in the system that is a repository of all alloy and human knowledge. They are then put through a series of trials that will determine the future of humanity.
There are a lot of ethical and philosophical conundrums explored in this book, as the alloys basically look at humans as misguided children that need to be guided, protected, and restricted for their own good, and Jayanthi is trying to show that the rules of the Compact are are patronizing and outdated. She and Vaha don't quite win in the end, but there is hope for the future of humanity and their daughter Akshaya.
This is a deep and thoughtful SF story that will reward a careful reading. There is action here, but it is not particularly fast-paced, and the romance between Vaha and Jayanthi plays an important part. This took me quite a few days to read, as it is not a story to be rushed through, but you will be rewarded.
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