Shadow Captain, by Alastair Reynolds (Gollancz, 2019)
The Ness sisters have a problem. In fact they have two big ones, and a host of smaller ones.
First, in the previous book, Revenger, they went up against a monster, and won. She was the solar system’s most dread pirate and one does not just go up against evil like that and emerge unscathed. To bring her down, the sisters had to become what they didn’t want to be, and as this book opens almost straight after the last, they’re still living with the consequences in their own heads.
And second, the good news hasn’t had time to spread. They inherited the pirate’s ship, which is easily recognisable and has a reputation of its own – the kind that makes other people shoot on sight.
So far, this could be a story from the seventeenth century Caribbean, the golden age of piracy. In fact it’s so far in the future that the planets we know were long ago dismantled and repurposed: there is a throwaway line to the effect that we took the rubble of the eight old worlds and made millions of new worlds out of all that material, which you can’t help thinking was a little extreme, even after a consultation period that we’re told lasted several centuries. Even though it was done so long ago – further back than the currently recorded span of human history as of 2019 – the result is nicely described as leaving a lingering sense of buyer’s regret that is embedded in the psyche of the human race. Human life continues: all the small dramas of day to day existence continue to be played out. But with the planets gone, you can’t help wondering – what of the big questions? What challenges are left? How will the race now progress?
They live in habitats they have inherited from their distant ancestors, which they couldn’t possibly build now; they travel through space in lightjammers; and the only course really open to our heroes, or to anyone of spirit, is to plunder cached hordes of tech from previous civilisations. All this takes skill and perseverance, and can be the setting for any number of gripping stories, like this one, but the one thing no one can do is innovate. It’s an unsustainable way to run a civilisation. But life goes on, because – well, life goes on, and this is the world as its people know it.
Key scenes and snatches of dialogue set all this up for us, so there is no need to have read the first book. Reynolds has created a unique atmosphere here: the use of sailing ships and terminology, the old-style tech of a society very slowly going nowhere except down, and a deliberately semi-formal vernacular creates a melancholic, olde worlde atmosphere that is woven into the structure of this hi-tech milieu in a way that, say, Firefly tried but didn’t quite succeed to create. At the same time, the analogue steampunk vernacular suggests these are symbols for a far more sophisticated science than we have today.
The Ness sisters are sincere in their desire not to be monsters, and they tackle their problems quite logically, using the best information they have available, yet every good faith attempt to make good quite plausibly just secures them in their inherited reputation, until it gets to the point where they can quite reasonably think: well, if that’s what people think of us anyway … The reader shares every anguished, frustrated step of the journey as they achieved all the objectives they set out to achieve at the start of the book, and yet manage to make themselves worse off than when they began. At the same time they have a much stronger sense of purpose which will carry them as smoothly as a lightjammer with the sun behind it into book 3 of the series.