Author: Michael Shean
Genre: Science Fiction/Mystery
Rating: 4.5 Stars
Shadow of a Dead Star is gritty cyber- and biopunk mystery filled with tension and mystery.
Seattle, 2078. Civilization's soul is all but dead.War and terrorism has killed millions along with humanity's morality and empathy. Most people live obsessed only with decadence and technology.
Thomas Walken, an agent of the Industrial Security Bureau, is determined to protect what little light exists in his dark corner of America. When he's assigned to intercept a shipment of girls turned into cybernetic sex slaves, he stumbles onto a trail of violence and unexplained questions that may challenge his very understanding of the world.
The best science fiction often tells us more about humanity in the present in the future. The transhumanists run about predicting that technology will turn us into gods and solve all problems. What if the problem is a bit fundamental than resources shortages and weak AI? While such questions are hardly unknown in science fiction, Shadow of a Dead Star does explore the idea in a human-focused way. This is a novel firmly about humanity, not technology.
This is an unabashed cyber- and biopunk tale fixated on personal morality, the moral decay of society, consumerism, and the lengths those with resources will go to preserve their life and cater to their interests. None of these themes are perhaps the most novel, but they do have a particular resonance with events of recent years. I will note those seeking the adventures of people plunging into cyberspace and facing off in a virtual world are likely to be disappointed. Even with the presence of the requisite hacker character later in the book, the presentation of cyberspace in this world is focused on a more utilitarian imagining of the technology.
While I find the author's presentation of future technology realistic for the most part, I will note that some of the background social changes that underpin the setting do slightly strain credulity, but, for the most part, not enough to have damaged my enjoyment of the book or general verisimilitude. In particular, an attention to detail in developing other elements of the setting helps offset any such concerns.
Interestingly, as the child of both cyberpunk and far-older noir-influenced tales (a slight excessive fondness for metaphor, in particular, provides some evidence of the noir-DNA of this tale), one would typically expect the protagonist to be a man outside of the system. Instead, the protagonist, Thomas Walken, is an agent of the nearly de-fanged future federal government. Given the corporatist takeover of most functions of society, one might argue that a federal agent in such a setting is closer to a true outsider than a private detective or investigator.
He's a man who has seen darkness but is still desperately trying to do his small part to push back against it. Though he comes off a bit overly philosophical at times, his character is articulated well as a realistic individual suffering under the weight of the horrors he has seen--not a paladin untouched by the grime he must swim through. His intelligence, determination, and spark of decency make him an easy protagonist to like.
Grim and gritty is the best way to describe the atmosphere of the novel. Walken's primary beat concerns Wonderland, a biotech powerhouse that is pumping things out into the world that make the drug and sex trades of the present world look almost moral in comparison. The books starts with him investigating a shipment of so-called princess dolls--young girls whose brains have been replaced with biological computers to turn them into compliant sex slaves. While we're mercifully spared the direct fulfillment of the dark promise such a technology represents in the book, the princess dolls are symbolic of the general decay afflicting the world of Shadow of a Dead Star.
As Walken's adventures continue, he runs into a wide assortment of people all with their own motivations and concerns. They are, for the most part, an interesting cast of characters. Given the general nihilism and near-solipsism that afflicts many of these characters, they certainly aren't necessarily likable (with a few exceptions), but they are, for the most, intriguing.
This is certainly not a book lacking in action. Violence erupts shortly after the start of the case and is pervasive throughout the story. I found the scenes were rendered well and filled with good tension. As the main character has only minimal cybernetic or biotech modifications, there is very real sense of danger in his encounters with others. Sometimes a big gun isn't enough to save you from people who are have been made superhuman. Things get slightly gory in a couple of portions, but it never feels like the author is reveling in any of the violence or blood.
Shadow of a Dead Star, at its heart, is a mystery that I found compelling. There were a comfortable number of surprises throughout, and a good baseline level of tension and mystery is maintained throughout the novel. The author did a successful job of providing answers to questions that lead to deeper mysteries without being frustrating. By the time the end of the novel arrives, there are still a few surprises, but everything does seem to have logically progressed from what came before.
I suspect the end of the novel will divide readers. As I said above, it does seem to flow both from Walken's philosophical musings and the clues presented, but some people may still find it a bit beyond the bounds of what they expect in this type of story.