Aster grinned, all blunt white teeth. “Soran, I’d really like to seduce you. If you’re amenable.”
Her throat clicked, and she had to swallow a couple of times before she regained control of her vocal systems. “Yes, please.”
It’s been almost three years since Soran last saw Aster. The two of them met on the voyage to Essex Prime where Aster, along with the other Lunaran settlers, would be spending the next five years helping the new colony get its feet off the ground. The colonists came from many backgrounds and many planets. And now, of the two hundred people, a scant thirty survive. Twenty-nine of them are human, Anglo-Earthers. The other one is Aster. But the Aster that Soran knew aboard the Emery has been changed. Physically, she has become a monster. Whether there is still a person inside … no one yet knows.
Aster is, however, still fully aware. She doesn’t know what happened to her or the other settlers, but she knows why it happened. The company neglected to mention the ruins on the planet when they sent the colonists to Essex Prime. They didn’t mention the temple, or the deep well that led to darker tunnels. Whether they didn’t know, or just didn’t say, doesn’t matter anymore, because what was once asleep is awake again. It feeds on anger and hatred, it feeds on rage, and it’s hungry.
Soran is an AI, an individual created by scientists in the pursuit of knowledge. She is possessed of an operating system that allows her to think logically, clearly, and more quickly than a human. She is stronger and faster, and yet built to be nonthreatening, given modest height, a slender build, and created as a female. She is meant to think, and to learn (and to show off the skill of those who created her.) Alone out of all of those sent to rescue the colonists, she is one of those least likely to be swayed by something that provokes and feeds upon emotions.
That isn’t to say Soran has no emotions; the feelings she has for Aster are quite real. Aster was the first person to approach her as a friend, and not merely an object. She asked questions about Soran’s childhood, her likes and dislikes, her hopes and dreams, not out of scientific inquiry, but out of honest interest in Soran’s answers. Aster made her want, made her look to a future that held more than work, more work, and yet more work. Aster made Soran want to see the moons of another world, to see its oceans and forests. And to do so with Aster. For the first time comments about her beauty, or gentle touches of skin against skin make Soran feel … different. She feels want, and wanted.
Aster’s race are the Lunarans. Strong, fast, and with a pack-like structure and a strong sense of smell, they have been compared — not always favorably — to the werewolves of terran stories, but Aster’s no more canine than the commander of the Emery. For someone used to using pheromones and scent-based clues to figure out what people think or feel, Soran is a mystery to Emery. She has to think her way through conversations with the AI. Soran is a puzzle, and Aster seems to like puzzles. While there are other Lunarans on board the ship, Aster is from a different Den and hasn’t had the chance to form close bonds with them. It’s one reasons she works to make Soran her friend, and while building that friendship she finds that she wants more. Not to do it with a robot, but to make love to Soran.
This isn’t the first time an AI has been a character in a story, though I haven’t often seen them as main characters in a romance. Cooper manages to make Soran both alien and human at the same time, cold and distant, and yet still emotionally present in the story. She doesn’t feel fear in the same way a human would, missing the chemical cocktail that pushes us into fight or flight. Instead, she thinks her way through situations. She can recognize danger, she understands when she’s being threatened, but there’s a clinical sort of clarity to her thoughts.
There’s a hint of a sort of Lovecraftian otherness in the world and the alien presence, a sort of languid, gentle horror, but it’s not a horror story and there aren’t any truly frightening moments. There are dead bodies, and Soran is beaten rather badly but, owing to her responses, her reaction to it, it feels less like a beating than an examination of how an artificial intelligence might respond to such stimuli. Despite some of the darker subject matter this is a light, fun adventure story with a hint of horror.
However, the world building is very lacking, and so is the ending. We’re never shown (or even told) how the Lunarans or aliens are really different from the Anglo-Earthers.
When the plot of the book rests on the shoulders of the Anglo-Earther’s rage being channeled into xenophobia and misogony, enough so that they kill anything that isn’t human — and it’s implied that this also extends to those who aren’t white — it has to be established that there is more to being a Lunaran than just the name. I’m also not a fan that xenophobia is the default of every Anglo-Earther; why don’t some turn against their own kind, or suicidal? Why is every evil thought only to kill aliens?
But that’s a small nitpick; it just feels like the motivations of the thugs weren’t developed, and were just there because.
The ending also involves a bit of hand waving and it was too abrupt and felt, to me, like it left the story unbalanced. While this is book one of a series, I still think the first book could have used a stronger ending, which is a shame because Soran as a character was so well done and the writing was nice and easy to read. Even so, nitpick aside, I’ll be keeping out an eye for book two.