This Virtual Night is C.S. Friedman’s long-awaited sequel to her 1998 cyberpunk success, This Alien Shore. The speculative fiction author’s latest space opera, second in the Outworlds series, has a brand new cast of characters and is set in the same fascinating universe of mutated humans and bustling intergalactic trade, approximately 20 years after the events of This Alien Shore.
This Virtual Night opens from the perspective of young players of an engrossing medieval virtual reality game that is superimposed on the real world. Just as the reader starts to empathize with these characters, the first chapter comes to an explosive end. We discover that the players were somehow manipulated in-game into performing an attack meant to destroy the life support system of a major space station. Two unlikely allies, mercenary explorer Ru Gaya and out-of-his-depth game developer Micah Bello, must discover how and why the attack happened. The two chase the trail from an abandoned station infected with insanity to a chaotic outlaw stronghold in the hopes of stopping a mysterious entity capable of altering people’s perception of reality: a capacity that could bring the destruction of outworld civilization.
The novel is in tight third person with alternating point of view chapters. There are two characters whose perspectives we see most often: Ru and Micah. Ru is a Gueran outrider—an explorer whose risk-loving Variation makes her perfect for seeking far-flung inhabited worlds—who has been hired covertly to investigate the incident. Micah is a renowned VR game designer and coder of some skill who must clear his name by finding the group responsible for the attack.
This time around, Friedman’s main characters feel more engaging than those from This Alien Shore, perhaps because they hew more closely to familiar sci-fi archetypes or simply because Friedman has matured as a writer. Though we know very little of their pasts, Ru and Micah’s actions clearly demonstrate their strong character. Their interactions and deepening relationship unfold organically, in direct comparison to the first book’s depictions of relationships as a means to an end. The two also have an interesting dynamic with the scarred and self-interested character Ivar.
Friedman’s sequel further explores a huge and textured setting and investigates the concept of a technology that connects directly to the human brain. In This Alien Shore, Friedman asks what a computer virus could become in a world where it could affect the human mind. This Virtual Night examines where the threshold between reality and virtual reality should be defined when virtual reality is directly interfacing with the human brain.
“What is reality, if not shared illusion?”
This Virtual Night deals with the classic literary theme of illusion versus reality through the exploration of virtual reality. The characters in the novel often literally cannot trust what they see and hear due to the external manipulation of software connected to their brains. It would be nearly impossible to navigate a world supplanted by fiction. Today’s social technology has already proven itself capable of flooding the internet with misinformation and manipulating public opinion. Misinformation has the capacity to alienate people from one another. Fear of the other is used to dramatic effect throughout Friedman’s Outworlds series, where humanity’s great diaspora throughout the stars and subsequent mutation and fragmentation leads to marked xenophobia. Characters already fear one another based on insignificant details, so if VR technology overlays a false reality, this fear can and does explode into violence.
“Each human is, within himself, an alien landscape to all others.”
At its core, This Virtual Night feels like a classic space opera adventure, in contrast to This Alien Shore’s zigzaggy cyberpunk thriller. The book has a certain romance about it that aligns with many space opera tropes we know and love: the battles are epic in scope, the heroes and villains larger than life, the settings fantastical, and the people often irresistibly good-looking. One gripe concerns the ending of the novel, which felt a little too neat. Loose ends are tied up, and our heroes essentially save the day and then ride off into the sunset.
Though not required, it is highly recommended to read the first book in the series to fully enjoy the nuances of This Virtual Night. Fans of Neal Stephenson, William Gibson, and Anne Bishop should check out Friedman’s work.
C.S. Friedman knows how to craft a solid science fiction novel. This Virtual Night is a fast read due to deft pacing, a fun plot, and skillful world building. Held up to its predecessor, This Virtual Night’s more conventional concepts might not stick in the recesses of the mind quite as effectively. But with everything going on right now, maybe it’s okay to lose yourself in a sci-fi adventure rather than ponder deep philosophical implications of advancing technology.