“As a heavy cruiser, I had been an instrument of hard diplomacy and destruction; in the House of Reclamation, with my talents intact but my usefulness as a killing machine at an end, I had become instead a means to save lives.
It was almost enough.”
—Trouble Dog, Carnivore class Heavy cruiser and former member of the Conglomeration fleet.
Source: Review copy
Publisher: Titan Books
Date of Publication: February 20, 2018
With a simple order crossing the line from legitimate to war crime, the name Annelida Deal became synonymous with the term genocide throughout the spacefaring societies of the Multiplicity. Due to the outrage after her decision to raze the sentient jungle of Pelapatarn in a decapitation strike that ended the Archipelago War but produced massive collateral damage, Deal went into hiding. Meanwhile, the sentient warship Trouble Dog, haunted by her complicity in the genocide, resigned her commission and joined the House of Reclamation, an organization dedicated to life rather than death. While she can never forget her past as an instrument of annihilation, Trouble Dog hopes to find redemption in her new role as a rescue ship, saving those lost and stranded along the space lanes.
Several years later, the space liner Geest Van Amsterdam is shot down by an unknown assailant in a solar system colloquially known as The Gallery. The Gallery is a collection of artificially altered planets, literally sculpted into various unnatural shapes by an anonymous race millennia before mankind looked to the stars. Their purpose unknown, the Gallery has become an astronomical oddity, visited by the occasional scientific mission or site-seeing passenger liner. Famed poet Ona Sudak, one of the Amsterdam’s few survivors, finds herself hunted through the unforgiving environment of the object known as “the Brain” by the mercenaries responsible for the Amsterdam’s destruction. What she finds within the structure of the Brain will reveal long-lost secrets about its creators, the motivation of her pursuers, and her own past—but only if the Trouble Dog and her eclectic crew get to her first.
The concept of artificial intelligence inhabiting a starship has been a staple of science fiction since at least 1968, when Richard Daystrom’s M-5 computer narrowly beat out Dr. Chandra’s HAL-9000 to become the first homicidal ship’s computer portrayed on-screen. Fred Saberhagen’s Berserker predates both by several years, and further exploration would undoubtedly uncover others. In recent years it appears the sentient starship trope has undergone a bit of a revival. Lovelace, aka “Lovey”, the A.I. running the starship Wayfarer in Becky Chambers’ The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, explores a romantic relationship between a synthetic consciousness and her human minder, while Breq, the protagonist in Anne Leckie’s Ancillary Justice seeks revenge for the loss of her ship.* It would be negligent to not mention the sentient starships of Iain M. Banks Culture series, however, I have been negligent in NOT HAVING READ ANY OF HIS WORKS**, a situation I hope to remedy at some point. With Embers of War, Gareth L. Powell uses this trope to good effect, crafting an entertaining tale of a sentient warship that no longer wants to wage war and her crew of emotionally damaged characters
Embers of War has a cinematic feel, with Powell relying on short chapters and fast pacing to construct his story. Painting with broad strokes, he allows the reader to fill in the details, conveying a universe with depth beyond the confines of the story and instilling a desire to explore it. Each chapter represents a character viewpoint, allowing deeper exploration of their motivations and inner struggles than might otherwise be accomplished. While a great device with which to develop the central characters, it does disadvantage the non-viewpoint characters, who tend to come across as one-dimensional.
An example of this is Alva Clay, veteran of the Archipelago War and security chief on-board the Trouble Dog. Supposedly dedicated to Trouble Dog’s captain, Sal Konstanz, for rescuing her after the Pelapatarn massacre, Alva spends much of her time unfairly blaming Sal for the death of their former medical technician. Described as a talented and competent professional soldier, Alva disproves that at every chance, to the point of getting herself wounded while unloading her weapon to check IF IT’S LOADED at the most inopportune moment. She’s the type of soldier that any halfway competent military would weed out during basic training due to her mental instability. Is this instability due to post traumatic stress or general incompetence? A viewpoint chapter or two would help explore how she came to be such a broken soldier. Much the same can be said of Preston Menderes, the unqualified med-tech foisted on Sal right before their mission to rescue the survivors of the Geest Van Amsterdam. He’s immature and emotionally stunted, utterly unsuited to the high stress career of a med- tech, and a character that would be more interesting and less annoying if the reader were given more insight into how he came to be so damaged.
Conversely, Powell’s viewpoint characters are more complex, specifically Sally Konstanz, Ona Sudak, and especially Trouble Dog herself. Sal Konstanz is not only a war veteran and seasoned captain, she’s the great-great grand-daughter of Sofia Nikitas, founder of the House of Reclamation. Her lineage affords her a legacy, but she’s never been one to ask for special favour, earning her place on Trouble Dog by merit alone. While wholly committed to both her crew and their mission, Sal suffers from a lack of confidence ill befitting her service record. She’s a sympathetic character, tormented by her belief that she hasn’t lived up to her ideals, and riven by guilt after losing a crew member that she realistically never had a chance to save. Ona Sudak’s chapters show us a multi-dimensional character that I really can’t discuss in detail without revealing major spoilers, so I’ll include her in the end notes.***
And then there’s Trouble Dog, the artificial intelligence bred for war and influenced by the predatory nature of the canine DNA spliced into her computer core, a truly remarkable intelligence displaying the empathy that Annelida Deal never could. Trouble Dog is very conscious of her feral nature and actively holds it in check, a sign of her growth as a sentient being. Her sisters and brothers are bothered by such thoughts to varying degrees, one going so far as to commit suicide, but Trouble Dog finds a more satisfying outlet for her guilt, seeking redemption by protecting others.
Powell delves into the mind of Trouble Dog, both literally and figuratively, creating a virtual environment for her to inhabit, a plot device he’s used to great effect in earlier novels (artificial realities are a huge part of the Ack-Ack Macaque trilogy), and manages to anthropomorphize her into a complex personality both sympathetic and empathetic. While a compassionate and fearless defender of life, she’s also a wily street fighter, bloodthirsty enough to take on her less empathetic siblings despite being denuded of her weapons systems after her resignation from the military. Trouble Dog is perhaps the most well-rounded character of the novel, making the entire endeavour worthwhile.
If you’re looking for an overriding theme within Embers of War, that theme would be the concept of redemption. Sal Konstanz wants redemption for her (misplaced) culpability in the death of one of her crew, while Ona Sudak desires, if not redemption, the absolution of obscurity. Trouble Dog’s redemption comes through her desire to save others. It’s a tale of broken people trying to repair their lives, with Trouble Dog acting as both character and setting while they go about it.
Embers of War is the first of three acts, setting up both the universe in which it takes place, and the confrontation that will drive the next novel. For what Trouble Dog and her crew find within the interior of the object known as the Brain will bring dire consequences to the inhabitants of the Multiplicity. This next novel, Fleet of Knives, is due to be published early in 2019, and I can hardly wait to read more of the Trouble Dog and her eclectic crew.
Gareth L Powell maintains a website and blog at www.garethlpowell.com.
*Having read and enjoyed A Long way to a Small Angry Planet, Ancillary Justice remains on my TBR list.
**Feersum Endjinn doesn’t count, as it was neither a Culture novel nor featured an A.I. character inhabiting a Starship. It remains a wonderful book.
***Spoiler! Spoiler! Spoiler! It’s not really a huge reveal, but Ona Sudak is also Annelida Deal, the Conglomeration officer who ordered the massacre that ended the Archipelago War. She’s a strong personality who made a controversial decision that is looked upon with derision yet remains confident in her justification. The strike successfully ended the war and saved lives in the long run, but in retrospect was considered a war crime due to the horrific collateral damage. The historical analogy would be the decision Harry Truman had to make near the end of World War Two, weighing the lives of those citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki versus the millions of civilian and military lives an invasion of the Japanese mainland would have incurred. She’s perfectly suited to explore ethical issues such as “the greater good” (Utilitarianism).