Born to extreme wealth, Arad Ansari should have wanted for nothing. But when his parents found out Arad was unwilling to carry on the family name, they not only cut him off, they erased his very existence. Thrust into the “slug” caste of the Grey District, Arad now ekes out a mean living as a mechanic and turning a few tricks. So when a space captain named Torrins offers Arad a gig warming the captain’s bed and performing maintenance on the Midas Ascending ship, Arad jumps at the chance. It doesn’t take long for Arad to figure out something a bit more clandestine than “space trading” is going on aboard the ship. His suspicions are confirmed when ApexCorp, an evil corporation trafficking genetically engineered superhumans called DemiShou, hails Torrins…and demands their stolen ship and human cargo back. Arad must act fast to save himself, the DemiShou, and the ship itself or perish.
Arad manages to evade capture by ApexCorp, but in the process knocks the Midas Ascending out of order. With nothing but time on his hands, Arad decides to check on the DemiShou in the cargo hold. When one of them wakes up and forms an immediate bond through physical intimacy of dubious consent, things get interesting. It takes weeks for Arad and the awakened DemiShou, named Roku, to unravel the complex feelings and emotions they have about each other and their situation. Being stuck on an inert spaceship with limited supplies also puts a special kind of stress on their slowly developing bond. Eventually, Arad manages to get an emergency beacon working and help arrives. But Arad worries that with others around, all the secrets that lead to Arad and Roku being adrift in space will come to light. Even worse, Arad may find there is no way for both him and Roku to escape ApexCorp.
Ansariland is a sweeping science fantasy type novel from author J. Alan Veerkamp. It’s a longer novel broken into two main parts: the shorter part covers Arad planet-side in a place called Grey District; the greater part sees Arad in space. You might also argue the space side is broken into three elements: Arad as a crew member aboard Midas Ascending; Arad and Roku trying to get the ship back in running order; and the aftermath of the rescue. Personally, I did notice the length of this book as I read. That said, having a bit of familiarity with Veerkamp’s storytelling style (Innocence & Carnality), I kept turning pages with interest because I was never sure which characters and situations would resolve into something more than characters in vignettes setting a scene.
Our main character shines in the book. Arad is far from perfect, but his actions and reactions throughout the story demonstrate his hard-earned street smarts. One of the pivotal fight scenes also highlights this fact; Arad might be a considered a member of the “slug” caste, but he is not ignorant of how elites operate, he can identify their weaknesses, and he can use those weaknesses to his advantage. Given his experience as a slug, Arad also feels tremendous sympathy for the DemiShou. I liked that this sympathy wasn’t instant; Arad meets a DemiShou before he goes to space and doesn’t think twice about the hybrid man/animal. But when he discovers three of the hybrids in cryo chambers aboard the Midas Ascending, he realizes he and the DemiShou are not so different. This small, discrete element of how Arad reacts to DemiShou helped me see that Arad feels not only physical attraction to Roku, but also emotional connection as well.
Take note: the physical relationship that develops between Roku and Arad starts off under highly dubious consent. Roku has just awoken from a cryo-state and is possibly acting on uncontrollable animal instinct; Arad is still reeling from enjoying a bit of what is basically a party-sex drug (NB: Arad thought he would be alone as the cryo chambers were still containing all the DemiShou and he’d been in space for a long time with not a lot to do beyond reading). Both men grapple with the aftermath and the still present attraction and desire. Roku tries to keep Arad at arm’s length, but cannot deny that he craves being physically close to Arad. Arad also has to do some soul searching to find out if he actually harbors feelings for Roku, or if he only wanted sex because of the drug he’d taken. Eventually, they come together in a fated-mates type of scenario…but that gets flipped on his head for a hot minute, briefly raising the question of consent again in an interesting way.
The pacing of the book kept me turning pages. Again, the simple shift from Arad being planet side, to him becoming a member of Torrins crew, to him being promoted to captain all kept the action building in different ways. I liked how Arad’s life sort of prepares him for the challenges to come, but only by half. For example, Arad often worked as a mechanic and fixed things. This helped him tremendously when he had to fix the Midas Ascending, but not before he spent days literally pouring over the ship’s reading materials on repairs and operation. The ending was also a pleasant change from simply overcoming a significant foe, veering briefly into “rocks fall, everyone dies” territory before limping more towards something more towards “happy for now.”
I wanted to rate this story much higher, but I identified several one-off issues and one systemic issue of language that stigmatizes body size, age, and race. Because the narration is third-person and the problematic language is not embedded in dialogue, it was impossible to cast any of this as merely a character’s own personal bias. For example, Arad notes a low-ranking law enforcement type looks like he “wasn’t prone to missing a meal” screamed anti-fat bias to me. Or when Arad’s fingers, broken from some horrific torture (partly on-page), are compared to those of an “addled grandparent” felt like ageism. Finally, there was the breathtaking decision to explicitly code the one demonstrably evil individual as a black woman immediately before she makes the killing shot of a main character. None of this prose serves a higher purpose in the story (unless the marginalization is the point).
Finally, as someone who is well versed in Japanese language and translation, I was extraordinarily disappointed at Veerkemp’s use of Japanese. First, there are three DemiShou who have been illegally engineered by the evil ApexCorp. That corporation has labeled the DemiShous’ cryo chambers go, roku, shichi, and hachi—transliterations of the Japanese words for 5, 6, 7, and 8. To me, this indicates that ApexCorp is Japanese. Later, there is a brilliant space mechanic character who is waif-like and has pink hair (read: anime style manic pixie chick); her name is “Yosei.” This is literally just “fairy” in Japanese. I was also bothered by a nonsensical othering in the way a character is addressed through their honorific. The appropriation of the language, seemingly without any thought to how it’s actually used, felt like it was just for the sake of exoticising the DemiShou and their origin story.
Overall, I really wanted to like the story. The characters are interesting and Veerkamp weaves together a sweeping epic that has changes in scene and circumstances that keep a reader guessing. The theme of noncon/dubcon relationships was handled with slow and thoughtful reflection from Arad and Roku. Arad faces seemingly insurmountable challenges at every stage, but manages to persevere…not through flashing posturing or sheer dumb luck, but by being consistent and vigilant. For me, it was just disappointing how a potentially great story stumbles so badly with inexplicably biased used of language.