Reynolds' stories consistently work to paint the struggle of humans in a vast universe with mysteries that threaten to debilitate us and our achievements. This story adds to that painting, revealing yet another perspective on our place in the universe, however far in the future.
In the story we meet Scur, a hardened solider of a war she neither condoned nor chose to partake in, who finds herself waking up from cryo-sleep on a ship with thousands of others stranded in orbit around an apparently barren planet they don’t recognize. Over time, Scur and the members of the ship discover just how dire their situation is: they’ve not only skipped across space, but an unimaginable span of time. They’re where they were supposed to be, but far too late. The ship is dying, failing despite the AI’s best efforts at maintaining homeostasis. And the thousands of other passengers are a deadly mix of soldiers and civilians from all sides of the war with grudges and prejudice still fresh in their blood.
In a brave stroke of social engineering Scur, with the help of the first crewmember she runs into, is able to set up a form of government with representatives from the various groups serving as the leaders. As their predicament dawns on them, Scur and the leaders encourage the population to try to save humanity’s knowledge and culture stored in the dying ship’s memory by carving entire passages from ship’s systems into the ships walls.
By the end, we learn that humans face an unfathomable alien enemy that brought on the stone age for much if not all of humanity; that the planet they’d been orbiting was inhabited by humans who were barely surviving and who had no knowledge of the technological and cultural advances humanity had made before them.
The book ends as a letter or Scur’s memoir in which she signs off. This format in first-person was actually a bit confusing at first: Scur’s written these words for a future generation’s benefit, chronicling what had happened to her. In the first few pages it read like a normal first-person narrative, until a break in the passage which served as an aside by Scur. The shifts between what was happening to Scur and Scur’s exposition on what she thought about it <em>now that she’s reminiscing</em> weren’t as smooth as I’d have liked. After the first few shifts, however, I settled into the flow.
I truly enjoyed reading this meditation. Reynolds skillfully conjures a universe that is expansive with a human history that is equally deep. His choice of using a galactic war didn’t seem central to narrative, although it provided the foundation for both Scur’s character as well as the social dynamic within the ship.
Speaking of Scur’s character, her hardened but merciful personality was well balanced. I do feel her last actions to help the inhabitants of the planet seemed rushed, however: she clearly had been ruminating on the fate of the humans on the surface, but not enough narrative or exposition was afforded that decision. In fact, the story would have gained much more gravity had the reader been privy to Scur’s concern of the planetside humans. Just how far back was humanity set by the alien presence, what did happen to all the technology that had once existed?
This story brings up fantastic questions for our own time too, from the obvious one in which we’re the planetside humans and have forgotten our own prior advances. Or the more nuanced (and perhaps more relevant) question of how we would protect our collective knowledge and culture and record of our achievements. Today, there’s serious uncertainty of our ability to sustain our planet and ourselves. If our various efforts fail, what then? We may not have anyone in orbit to help us recover.