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Barbary Station Hardcover – October 31, 2017
"Rebound" by Kwame Alexander
Don't miss best-selling author Kwame Alexander's "Rebound," a new companion novel to his Newbery Award-winner, "The Crossover,"" illustrated with striking graphic novel panels. Pre-order today
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“An exhilarating mashup of Golden-Age widescreen and zeitgeist cool. Totally unexpected. More please!” (Award-winning author Stephen Baxter)
"This book is good fun. I really enjoyed this, and I bet you will, too." (Ann Leckie, Hugo and Nebula Award-winning author of Ancillary Justice)
"Grabs you in chapter one and doesn't let go. This book is for everyone who ever wanted to be a space pirate." (Mur Lafferty, Award-winning author of Six Wakes)
About the Author
R.E. Stearns is the author of Barbary Station. She wrote her first story on an Apple IIe computer and still kind of misses green text on a black screen. She went on to annoy all of her teachers by reading books while they lectured. Eventually she read and wrote enough to earn a master's degree in curriculum and instruction from the University of Central Florida. She is hoping for an honorary doctorate. When not writing or working, R.E. Stearns reads, plays PC games, and references Internet memes in meatspace. She lives near Orlando, Florida with her husband, a computer engineer, and a cat.
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It took me until page 120 or so to figure out why I was having such a hard time getting into Barbary Station. By rights, this book is so up my alley I should have been able to walk right into its pages like I’d been born there. It wasn’t the setting, nor was it the characters, nor the premise. It wasn’t the author’s voice, the pacing, or anything like that. Still, somehow I just couldn’t catch the flow of Stearns’ book.
Finally, I put my finger on it: the central political conflict that motivates much of the incidental inter-character conflict was lost on me. It wasn’t complicated or anything, it’s just that the way Stearns presented it it went in one ear and out the other (so to speak). I’m sure it’s not her fault – I just missed it, and was left with that arresting moment of “wait, what?” every time a new interaction went south because of that conflict.
Thankfully, once I was able to put my finger on what was tripping me up I fared a lot better, and almost immediately got into the swing of this book. It didn’t hurt that, coincidentally, right as I recovered from my revelation the whole AI plot (totally what I’d showed up for in the first place) picked up in earnest. From then on, there was no hope for me. I was in love!
I can’t find anything on Stearns’ background in AI, but I just can’t believe she hasn’t got one. AI development is one of my passions, and most of my life (and my college career) has been spent plumbing its depths and keeping abreast of the latest theories and developments. Stearns’ view of how real artificial intelligence would be integrated into a future society blew me away. Her vision for the future is brilliant (and perfectly credible), and her handling of the moral implications of true AI is the perfect blend of approachable and cutting-edge; it’s truly inspiring without ever trending preachy or overly “science”y.
In addition, Stearns has presented literally the only version of the “person entering a virtual realization of the concept-space a computer operates within” trope that didn’t make me roll my eyes – since Tron. Since that sentence is a nightmare, let me explain as well as I can without spoilers. Adda, the computer engineer protagonist, has a specialized jack implant with which she “jacks in” to computers in order to interact with their AIs. When she does this, she enters a hallucinographic environment that abstracts computer data into (sometimes odd) real-world items for her to interact with. This trope has been used over and over again, since Tron and the Matrix, Hackers and Andromeda. And visually, it kind of works. But when it’s used in writing, it’s always fallen flat for me. Stearns, however, uses this technique in a way that adds to, rather than distracts from, her narrative. Suffice it to say I’m very impressed.
To round it out, she writes amazing characters! The protagonist couple are wonderfully and stably in love, without going grossly “lovey”, and they’re each believably real as individual characters and as partners for each other. As a bonus for some of us readers, Stearns’ writing is body-inclusive and one of her main characters is a total introvert – and not just when it’s convenient to the story! Stearns displays a real knack for a very particular kind of humor, too, and I am HERE for it.
Which brings me to my last observation for this spoiler-free review: this book would make an AMAZING movie! So many of the plot-advancing reveals are visual, and while Stearns writes them exceedingly well they would be astounding on the large screen. Everything about this book would pop on screen – from the epic scenes, to the breathtaking action, to the nail-biting suspense, and beyond. I’ve never actually *wished* for a movie adaptation like this before. And with the reception it’s gotten since it was published, I think chances are good Barbary Station might just make it to a theater near you (and me).
Adda and Iridian decided that the best hope for their future lies in piracy. How else could they pay off their student debt? So they concoct a plan to get in with a piracy crew on Barbary Station, stealing a colony ship’s worth of supplies to prove their value. But once they arrive on Barbary Station, nothing is what they expected. The pirates aren’t living in luxury but are hiding in a base rigged to the exterior of the station, traveling through the cracks and crannies of the station, always on the lookout. For the station might have been abandoned, but the security AI was never shut off. It’s decided that the pirates — and a group of refugees also on the station — are intruders, and it’s willing to use lethal force to get rid of them. Oh, and it shoots down any ship that attempts to leave. Adda, Iridian, and the rest of the pirates are doomed to a slow death, unless they can deal with the AI once and for all.
I enjoyed Barbary Station, but I also felt like it could have been better. Probably the biggest area for improvement is in the characters. All of the characters could be stronger, Adda and Iridian included. I’m glad the book chose to have them in an established romantic relationship (why don’t more books do this?), but I also would have liked to get more of a sense of what they saw in each other, why they’re together, that sort of thing. As is, I sort of felt like I was being told they loved each other without ever really feeling it.
However, it’s the supporting cast who really need more development. Probably the two most prominent are Adda’s younger brother, Pel, and the pirate captain, Sloane. Pel felt sort of like a character type — the cocky but lovable younger brother, but it worked all right. I would have liked to see more about Sloane, who’s this sort of mysterious figure hovering over the entire book. I got the impression there was some stuff going on with the Captain (important backstory?), but we never find out what. Maybe it’s being saved for the sequel? As for the rest of the cast, they never made much of an impression. And I think they need to, especially if Stearns wants those character deaths to have impact.
Plot-wise, Barbary Station could have been streamlined. I felt like there was some lulls in the pace, and I thought the story called for a consistently high pace and action that drives everything forward. There were a few spots where I could feel myself getting bored, especially in the beginning. Thankfully, the second half engaged my interest more.
I did like the overall set up with the killer AI. Pretty soon, Adda starts asking whether or not the AI’s awakened. In the language of the book, that means whether or not the AI’s become sentient. Supposedly, it’s not unknown, but awakened AI’s are always immediately destroyed. I liked the way Barbary Station dealt with the topic, and I’m interested to see where the sequel takes it.
And yes, I am planning on reading the sequel. For all its flaws, I found Barbary Station an enjoyable read. It’s not bad for a debut novel, and I’d love to see how R.E. Stearns grows as a writer with future books.