By now, the stories of humans transcending their limitations in space have become pretty much ubiquitous. We’ve had space cyborgs, space immortals, and tons of other posthumans in space. But the new novel Edge of Dark by Brenda Cooper still represents a fascinating new approach.
In Edge of Dark, a young woman named Nona goes to visit the planet Lym, which is the one unspoiled planet in a solar system where every other planet has been mined and exploited to death. Nona wants to see this planetary nature preserve, full of strange creatures for herself, and she forms a close bond with Charlie, who’s basically a forest ranger on Lym.
But then Nona and Charlie find out that a group of artificial intelligences called the Next—who are basically human minds uploaded to computers—are coming back from their exile. Long ago, humans fought these post-human machines and drove them out of the solar system, but now the machines are back and much more powerful than before.
The Next, who are confusingly also referred to as the Ice Pirates on occasion, demonstrate their power by attacking and stealing an entire space station, killing untold thousands of people in the process. The Next spare a few captured humans, including Nona’s best friend Chrystal, only to upload their brains into machines, killing their human bodies and turning them into “Soulbots” who can help communicate with the rest of the human race on the Next’s behalf.
So it’s up to Nona and Charlie to team up and try to find a way to deal with this A.I. invasion. And Nona is also faced with figuring out whether this machine that looks like her best friend and has all her friend’s memories and emotions is really her.
There are a few things that make Edge of Dark kind of unusual, and a worthy addition to the now-large canon of posthuman space books. For one thing, the Next come across as very alien, but still seem to have a legitimate point of view. They’ve spent so long out there, at the fringes of the solar system, and have evolved so much, that they barely understand normal humans any more. But they clearly have their own culture and their own ways of interacting and looking at things.
And that’s the second thing that’s kind of unique about Edge of Dark: It shows the process of a human becoming a robot, in a really intimate, fascinating way. Chrystal is part of a group marriage with two men (Jason and Yi) and another woman (Katherine), and the four of them get converted to artificial intelligences at the same time. Their relationship continues and evolves after their transformation, and in some ways they can share a greater intimacy—they can connect telepathically and visit each other’s perceptions and thoughts, via a process called “braiding.”
And the question of whether Chrystal is still Chrystal turns out to be be a complicated one, with no easy answer. Not only does the robot have all of Chrystal’s memories, but she remembers them with much greater clarity and detail than a real human could. She can remember exactly what Nona was wearing when they first met as children, and a host of other things that were blurred out in her human recollections. Another neat thing: the robot Chrystal never stops resenting the fact that she was turned into a robot (and her human body was killed) without her consent—she never stops seeing herself as a murder victim.
But what really makes this book special is the stuff involving the planet Lym, the last relatively unspoiled piece of nature in human space. (Actually, we messed the planet up generations ago, and Charlie and his people are slowly trying to restore it to pristine condition.) The wildlife and richness of Lym’s biosphere comes across vividly in Cooper’s descriptions, and his desire to protect his home from A.I. interference (or from other humans) provides a powerful motivation—and also an interesting counterpoint to the other humans’ perspective. The Next have a huge problem understanding regular humans in general, but they have absolutely no appreciation for nature or for the value of non-human animals.
And finally, Edge of Dark turns into an interesting political narrative about how humans react to the return of these banished A.I.s—the final third of the book is very much about the politics of human-A.I. relations, and the different reactions that regular humans are likely to have to encountering these (arguably) superior intelligences.
That said, there are a couple of problems with Edge of Dark, both of them related to their connection with other books. I didn’t realize when I started reading this book that Cooper had previously written some other books in this same universe, and Edge of Dark is full of call-backs to Cooper’s Ruby’s Song duology that went over my head. Also, Edge of Dark is the first book in what appears to be a trilogy, and it doesn’t quite pack a satisfying ending on its own.
Even with those two complaints, though, Edge of Dark is worth reading for a unique vision of artificial intelligences—particularly, what it would be like to be uplifted to a computer, how humans will cope with encountering superior artificial minds, and how these A.I.s are likely to view the natural world that humans evolved from. Those are all super-fascinating questions, and Cooper gives you a lot to think about.
Charlie Jane Anders is the author of All The Birds in the Sky, coming 2016 from Tor Books. Follow her on Twitter, and email her.