C.S. Friedman recently released a somewhat unexpected sequel to her 1998 novel This Alien Shore last month: This Virtual Night. This Alien Shore is C.S. Friedman’s most successful science fiction work and was listed as a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. Rereading the first book in the series through a modern lens and with the benefit of hindsight reveals that This Alien Shore remains an undeniably good science fiction novel. Friedman’s thorny concepts and compelling technological ideas make the book feel fresh and relevant.
This Alien Shore explores a universe in the second stage of human space colonization. Humanity’s first attempt to colonize distant space ended catastrophically, with the first wave of colonists experiencing permanent genetic damage, resulting in physical and mental mutations known as Variations. The Outspace Guild, which was created by Guerra, one of the first colonies, now controls interstellar travel through tight control of an alternative method of faster-than-light travel that only they are capable of providing. All humans have a built-in interface between mind and machine that allows them to access the outernet. A deadly digital virus is targeting Guild members, and reclusive Dr. Kio Masada is tasked with finding it and neutralizing it before it spreads to the entire human race. Meanwhile, the young Jamisia is being hunted ruthlessly as a valuable commodity for what’s inside her head. She has been experimented on without her knowledge or consent, leading to an acute form of multiple personality disorder that might just challenge the status quo of space travel.
The universe of This Alien Shore is a high tech, highly fragmented society with intensely competitive players. At the beginning of the novel, Jamisia’s space habitat is completely destroyed by corporate raiders, killing a significant number of people. “Somewhere on the habitat real damage had been done, probably in the name of some corporate maneuver […] capitalism is a harsh mistress.” The Guild, meanwhile, has its fingers in nearly every aspect of commerce among the stars. Friedman’s Guild draws parallels to Frank Herbert’s Dune, where the Spacing Guild also has a stranglehold on space travel through proprietary navigators—though perhaps with fewer good intentions than Friedman’s.
This Alien Shore aptly distills fears of the future of internet privacy and anti-corporate sentiments that are increasingly pertinent now. Friedman forecasts many costs and corresponding benefits for a society driven by connection technology. Written before the advent of Google and Facebook’s data supremacy and those handy little tracking devices we carry around in our pockets, the novel was published right in the midst of the dot com bubble. Though at the time, digital advertisement was in its infancy, Friedman correctly guessed how prevalent predatory advertisement strategies would get. The concept of a deadly virus taking over the world feels especially apropos.
This Alien Shore contains some interesting, capable, and nuanced neurodivergent point-of-view characters. Friedman’s Guerans (part of the first wave of colonists) have a Variation that causes them to exhibit signs of mental illness that were previously eradicated in the general population on Earth. However, this Variation is often portrayed as having net positive effects with Guerans shown to perform at a much higher level than neurotypical humans. The esteemed Dr. Masada is portrayed as quite far along the autism spectrum, which allows him to manipulate data and arrive at stunning conclusions as he seeks the dangerous virus. Friedman’s own experience with mental health informs her sensitive exploration of the subject.
In this reviewer’s opinion, one relatively brief scene did not age as well as the rest of the novel. As Jamisia travels on a spaceship, she and a love interest spy on an isolated sector that follows strict religious law. In Friedman’s depiction of the future of space travel, the practice of mandatory religious pilgrimage to the holy land can be prohibitively expensive enough that some people are willing to sell themselves into indentured servitude. According to the love interest, this sector is the “only place in Guild space where slavery still exists.”
Though pilgrimage has been a widespread tradition in many religions around the world, Islam is the religion most known for this practice. Hajj, or mandatory pilgrimage to Mecca, is required of all Muslims once in a lifetime. Though Islam is not mentioned by name in the novel, some readers may interpret the details of the scene to be a critical depiction of a speculative Traditionalist Islamic sect. However, Friedman has explained that the reason the scene exists is to answer important societal questions raised by the setting: “What becomes of a people that are required by their faith to visit Earth, when that journey requires years of travel and will be prohibitively expensive for many?”
The short passage feels evocative of the United States’ complicated relationship with Islam. From the 1970’s through the 1990’s, Americans witnessed the Arab-Israeli War, oil embargo, Iranian Revolution, Iranian hostage crisis, and the Gulf War in Iraq. In 2020, this passage feels somewhat out of place in a book that otherwise preaches tolerance, and may confound modern readers. If the scene had been longer, perhaps Friedman’s message would have been more clear.
Upon reading through a more critical and contemporary lens, This Alien Shore still holds up. Themes of human madness and fear of the other are engagingly explored with well-chosen detail and vivid settings. The book ends pretty conclusively, though some questions remain about what might have happened to the main characters after the ending.