What I’m Reading: This Alien Shore

Friedman is one of the few authors I will buy the moment i see the new offering, beginning with her first novel, In Conquest Born in 1986 (gods, that makes me feel old). Her characters are exquisitely drawn, her worlds rich, and her story-telling skills superb. More importantly, she’s an author who fulfills the promise to take me somewhere new.

This Alien Shore opens with a young girl’s frantic escape from the Habitat orbiting Earth that has been her home, just before it is blown up in a a corporate raid. A last message from her mentor raises more questions than it answers. She learns that she’s been part of a highly secret, highly illegal experiment that “modded” the communication and data storage systems in her head. And someone is willing to kill her to keep others from getting access to it

Throughout the novel are questions of humanity via the central premise of its universe: what is human? Is it a matter of how it looks or follows social norms? Is it only confirmed at the genetic level — in which case what is the ‘baseline’ for measurement? Is it human to control sanity via chemicals (drugs or ‘natural’)? To alter the brain for maximum creativity? How can two cultures — both ‘human’ interact when their frames of reference are wildly incompatible, if not mutually exclusive.

The Guerans were especially fascinating: a world where insanity (as we would define it) is understood and appreciated while being cultivated and controlled — by the individual, not the state — as pathways for specific genuis. (It was interesting to try to figure out what disorders these people had. I recognized people with autism, Tourette’s, obsessive/compulsive disorder, and paranoid schizophrenia.) This is a society based on polite formulas to mitigate the clash between ‘clans’ as represented by various animals — lion, spider, snake, otter, etc.

These ‘power animals’ if you will, further the mythic quality Friedman tends to weave into her novels. The anniq — the naturally occurring rifts in space-time– is described like the icy waters of the Arctic, and dragons (sana) lurk within, waiting to eat the souls of unwary travelers.

As well, we are encouraged to think about the these of ‘define human’ by the universality of ‘net access. Today’s internet has become universal — literally. Where is the line between natural and unnatural when babies have implants so they are never denied their ‘right; to net access? For me, this writing takes Gibson’s best, and makes it readable. (I love his ideas, I hate how he expresses them.) In my opinion, the way she’s thought through how a computer virus would look and act in eight centuries is phenomenal.

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