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Thursday, April 9, 2009

The Philip K. Dick Award Nominees, Part 3 - Emissaries From the Dead, by Adam-Troy Castro (reviewed by Fabio Fernandes)

Agatha Christie with muscles - that´s a first.

How can you define un-blurbly-like Adam-Troy Castro´s Emissaries from the Dead? That´s a hard task.

Even having read Castro´s stories before, I wasn´t impressed by the pocket book when I ran into it in my local bookstore - even though Chris McGrath´s cover is beautifully done, and its somber quality had me thinking of old weird stories. (This, by the way, led to an e-mail exchange with Castro about who should play Cort in a movie version of Emissaries - I kept on picturing in my mind a mix of Selma Blair / Katie Holmes in the role of Andrea - but Selma Blair kicks ass, so she won the competition in my mind after all. For the record, Castro also found Blair agreeable, though he would also go for LIFE´s Sarah Shahi.)

But then I bought the book and started reading. And I was held in thrall by the Monster.

Associate Legal Counsel for the Homo Sapiens Confederacy Diplomatic Corps Judge Advocate Andrea Cort (this is the right title, though she prefers simply Counselor) is the only survivor of a massacre. At the age of eight, she witnessed the death of her parents and of an entire colony of humans and aliens in the world of Bocai, caused by something nobody could discover until now and that turned every single being into a murderer, making him/her killing each other in a bloodthirsty frenzy.

Andrea is the only survivor - but that doesn´t mean she also didn´t do her share of killing. So she was found guilty of murder and also considered a mass murderer (dubbed the Monster) by human and Bocaian standards, even though she knows that´s not the truth. The colonists were "invaded" by something nobody could figure out - and that she nicknamed, for want of a better name, as the unseen demons. She is obsessed by them.

Now, decades, later, even living in the artificial ecosystem of New London, in the Hom.Sap Confederacy, she lives as much apart from the human race as she can, having had her death penalty commuted in order to serve humankind. So she travels from world to world to solve conflicts for the Dip Corps.

Because, after everything she came through, Andrea Cort became a cold, no-nonsense, very harsh person, and she will do whatever it is she´s got to do to fulfill her duties - simply because she does not feel empathy for her fellow human beings. Humans, for their part, aren´t much excited by the prospect of meeting the Monster (she´s become famous throughtout the galaxy).

That means she acts like a diplomat but also kicks butt. She is not afraid of making enemies - and she does all too often, as is the case in this mission.

She goes to the cylinder world One One One, a station created and maintained by the alien independent software intelligences known as the AIsource to investigate the deaths of two human researchers, apparently non-related. Naturally, that´s not what Andrea thinks. Wary of human nature (and very wary of alien and machine nature, far more difficult to analyze), she meets human representatives Stuart Gibb and Peyrin Lastogne, who may prove more of a pain in the ass than of helping hands in her investigation.

But Andrea will have more to worry about than just the average uncooperative person or persons; One One One is not a human-friendly environment at all. Much larger than New London, it already had two indigenous carbon-based species, totally engineered by the AIsource: one of them is the sloth-like Brachiators, who live in the Uppergrowth, vertical forested slopes in the upper half of the cylinder (the habitable half), and who their own culture and can even communicate with humans, even though they don´t like it. They consider humans dead beings, and the few people who manage to gain their respect, usually through painful rituals, are considered "emissaries from the dead".

Humans in One One One live in Hammocktown, which is exactly what the name implies - a kind of compound made entirely of hammocks. The AIsource won´t let humans build anything other than these hammocks, though they are made of ultrastrong materials. Which didn´t prevent Cristina Santiago, one of the human researchers, of having her hammock cut, and to have an horrible death falling kilometers and dying in freefall in the high-pressure regions where the second engineered race, flying beast similar to the dragons of Earth lore.

Cynthia Warmuth, the other victim, was found hanging from the Uppergrowth, her body ripped open by Brachiator claws.

The thing is, these deaths seem to have been staged only for the benefit of Dip Corps, in Cort´s opinion. She can´t dismiss the possibility that they could also have been caused by the AIsource to scare humans off One One One - or just to make humans accuse the AIs of murder, and then perhaps create not only a mere diplomatic incident, but an all-out war and human extinction.

Andrea Cort can´t even begin to fathom the motivation of the machine intelligences. The only thing she knows - and this is something the AIsource itself tells her during her stay in One One One - is that the unseen demons of her past may be not only real, but also responsible for the massacre at Bocai - and maybe, in part, for the deaths there at the cylinder. And that´s what motivates her to go on, even after attempts on her life.

In the course of the investigation, she will also be helped by Oscin and Skye Porrinyard, a cylinked couple who gave up both separate personalities long ago to become a fully integrated being with only two different bodies. They will help Andrea in her investigation, save her life - and maybe more. The strange relationship Andrea begins to experience with the Porrinyards is very intriguing, and not without a little excitement.

Emissaries from the Dead, despite the Agatha-Christie-ish flavor, is more than the sum of its parts of influences. It is indeed a weird future tale in deep space, when plenty of people (and machines) can hear you scream, but why the hell should they care?

Emissaries from the Dead is a page-turner, and Andrea Cort is one of the strongest characters (both male and female, both SFnal and mystery) I´ve ever had the pleasure to meet between the pages of a book.

Note by Liviu:

Robert reviewed also this book for Fantasy Book Critic here, while I bought the book based on Robert's review and enjoyed it greatly as I did the recent sequel Third Claw of God.


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