Sunday, April 3, 2011

Book Review: Kite

Kite by Bill Shears

Sometime in the mid- to late 22nd century, the spaceship Kite is the last of the Earth Orbital Maintenance (EOM) sky sweepers. Piloted in shifts by two EOM employees, Dash and Christine, Kite's massive nets gather debris from the high-traffic Orbit #1. The ship processes the debris and casts the resulting lumps into Earth's atmosphere to burn up. The increasingly rare larger objects are sliced to pieces by high-powered lasers prior to processing. Although sky sweeping lacks the glory of early space travel, it's vitally important to prevent potentially lethal collisions between space trash and spacecraft (orbiting debris are a serious concern even in our sparsely populated early-21st century skies).

Since Kite is mostly automated, Dash typically sleeps through his three month shifts. However, the end of one shift proves to be unusually eventful when he discovers that the long-abandoned International Space Station II (ISS II) has been illegally re-occupied. It turns out that Dash is being kept in the dark by his own organization; Christine and Dash's boss, Martin, are part of a conspiracy involving the old station. In fact, the four intruders on the ISS II (Mona, Ling, Lumumba, and Trevor) were smuggled into orbit by Christine herself during shift changeovers.

A space shuttle radiator damaged by space debris

Back on Earth, Dash begins to research the ISS II and develops a plan to flush the trespassers out and to determine their intentions (he believes them to be terrorists). In this he is aided by his virtual guide, Sheila. Starting out her existence as a simple commercial program intended for entertainment, Sheila has since been modified by Janet, genius programmer and Dash's wife, into a continuously evolving artificial intelligence. Meanwhile, a more Darwinian form of evolution has taken place in Kite's long-neglected computer system. Due to exposure to various stimuli during their decades in orbit, and influenced by interaction with human pilots, the various functions, modules, and processes have begun to take on human-like traits and to resemble a human society. One particular bit of code that originally controlled a handful of icons begins to consume other programs and to usurp ever higher levels of computer control, eventually challenging Kite's Main Process itself.

Three months later, Dash returns to orbit despite Christine's and Martin's attempts to delay the beginning of his shift. Hoping to help in Dash's plan, Sheila downloads herself onto Kite's computer. She immediately attracts the rogue program's attention (which, being inspired by the name "Sheila", decides to name itself "He_Ra"). By the story's climax He_Ra finds that his rise to power has made him unpopular with the other computer entities on Kite, the purpose of the four trespassers is revealed, and a significant difference between the goals of the conspirators on the ground and the goals of those in orbit becomes apparent. Oh, and there's a space alien (no, this is not a spoiler).

Shears' first novel gets several things right. First of all, in an era when movies with an hour and a half of plot run for over two hours and books with 200 pages of story run for 400, Kite has an efficient length of just over 200 pages and manages to be a quick read. This is aided by the tongue-in-cheek tone of the novel; it's somewhat reminiscent of Douglas Adams' writing, but without the surrealism. Thankfully, the author avoids leaning on the thesaurus like so many of the less experienced franchise sci-fi authors (I'm currently reading an otherwise excellent Star Trek novel that actually uses the word "mellifluous"). Also to the author's credit is the fact that he isn't so enamored of his imaginary world that he feels the need to give us a hyper-detailed description of the sky sweeper or an excessive amount of back story or exposition (I've complained about this before). Like Dan Simmons, Shears maintains a good balance of worldbuilding, plot, and character development. This is an impressive accomplishment given that many first-time sci-fi or fantasy authors are tempted to focus almost exclusively on the gimmick of their story or imaginary world to the detriment of story and characters. Finally, the novel has a satisfying and logical conclusion, a disgustingly described alien (always a plus), and a couple explosions (you can't go wrong with a good explosion).

Earth from orbit

Of course, this being a first novel, Kite can be expected to stumble in a few places. None of the shortcomings ruin the overall plot or are fundamental flaws, but they do detract from the story. Plot-wise, the biggest misstep may be the early introduction of the alien, Troy, and the revelation of his intentions. By prematurely bringing the alien into the story and giving us an indication of his designs for Earth, much of the mystery and suspense that the author develops early on (and which are among the novel's strengths) as well as the impact of the finale are lessened. Given that Troy has little to do until the final 30 or so pages, it would have been more effective for the author to gradually introduce the alien's involvement near the mid-point of the plot and to save the amount of detail we're given in the beginning of the story for the final few chapters.

As for the narration, the story could benefit from expressing only one character's point of view (e.g., their internal thoughts and feelings) at a time. Kite has the disconcerting habit of giving us the viewpoint of two or more characters in the same paragraph. Although this approach has the virtue of letting the reader into the mind of all the characters all the time, it also lacks the intimacy of a limited point of view and prevents the reader from relating to any particular character. Compare this to Dan Simmons' technique: in Hyperion the reader is not initially allowed to see the point of view of private detective Brawne Lamia, who comes across as a gruff, ill-tempered, and vaguely dangerous person. However, when her story is told and we see the world through her experiences, the reader begins to see her as one of the most sympathetic characters in the series. In fact, my attitude towards several characters in Hyperion changed completely as Simmons gradually revealed the thoughts and feelings of each over the course of the novel. The sequel, The Fall of Hyperion, similarly limits itself to expressing only one character's point of view at a time, usually switching the viewpoint character from one chapter to the next. By the end of the two books, the reader feels like he or she knows each of the major characters intimately.

A couple more minor comments: Various characters, especially Dash, use slang that would seem dated in the 21st century (e.g., "see ya in the funny pages"); I can't imagine these would be used in the late 22nd century. I guess I'm being hypocritical here since I enjoy using archaic phrases myself ("huzzah" really is a word that should be used more often). There are also several instances in which the author forgets that the distances involved should result in most objects appearing very small (Star Trek often neglected this principle for dramatic reasons). At one point Christine is able to look out one of Kite's viewports and see people through a window of the ISS II. Since the side-mounted sweeper nets of Kite seem to be about a mile in width, this would mean that the pilot was somehow able to see people in a darkened window over a mile away. This is a minor detail that even well-experienced authors might overlook, but for the obsessive compulsive among us (and sci-fi seems to have more than its fair share of obsessive compulsive readers) it tends to stretch the reader's suspension of disbelief.

See what I mean?

Despite a few minor issues, overall, Kite is an entertaining story with an interesting setting, likable characters, and several good ideas. And in the end, that's essentially what I look for in a science fiction novel.

(Full disclosure: in return for an agreement to review it, I received an autographed copy of this book. A free book in exchange for a review, which I enjoy writing anyway, seemed like a pretty good deal to me.)

1 comment:

  1. Congratulations on a review well done! Huzzah! Huzzah! Huzzah! --your Padre



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