Saturn Returns is the first book in Sean Williams’ new space opera series, Astropolis. It has all the things you’d expect from New Space Opera: postumans, galaxy spanning cultures, conspiracies and imminent threat to humanity. The setting has some of the feel of Alastair Reynolds’ Inhibitor series, but with Williams’ own additions to space opera.
The back cover blurb says: “Dark experiments, dangerous ruins, fleeting ghosts and deadly conspiracies…” That’s enough to get me interested, and thanks to John, I had the opportunity to read it. The verdict: Saturn Returns has some good points and some bad points, but overall it’s a good space opera story that falls just short of being great.
Imre Bergamasc (right there you realize the names of the characters are going to get in the way of reading) wakes up on an ship traveling beyond the edge of our galaxy. He’s be reconstructed from a destroyed coffin that had his genetic code and brain patterns encoded inside of it. However, not all of the information was discovered, so Imre is reconstituted as a female and, of course ,without all of his memories. With the help of a mysterious glowing sphere, Imre escapes from his captors and embarks on a quest to discover who he is and why someone would want to destroy his final resting place.
Right at the beginning we have a hoary cliche in the amnesia angle and the verging on deus ex machina of his reconstruction. But those, while a bit annoying, aren’t really a big deal as Williams deals with them in interesting ways. Putting a new spin on these things is appreciated.
The really intriguing aspect of the book is the setting Williams has created. His far future civilization is recovering from a sudden attack by unknown entities that has left its posthuman citizens either dead or fragmented. The ‘people’ of this future come in three flavors: Prime (exist and experience time as we do), Singleton (capable of speeding up or slowing down their time perception and contain several copies of the same ‘self’) and Forts (gestalt personalities, like a hive mind, whose individual units are Frags, but are integrated to form a whole, their time sense is slowed to a galactic scale). A bit of technical wizardry, the Q Loop, allows the Forts to exist and communicate between their frags. It’s the technology behind the Q Loop that was destroyed by the attack, known as the Slow Wave, thus destroying the Fort personalities and causing humanities galactic civilization to fragment into a bunch of planet-states.
Imre discovers he was once a part of an anti-Fort group, the Corps, who fought and lost a war against them. As a Singleton, Imre has several copies of himself spread around the galaxy. It appears that one or more of these copies was involved in something so secret, it never met with the other copies to share it’s experiences. Could it be that this copy was somehow involved in the Slow Wave?
And thus we get to the issue which really bugged me. Saturn Returns, while having some stuff set in the ‘present’, is filled with a lot of backstory. As Imre makes his way through the Mandala Supersystem (another cool idea) he meets up with his old companions from the Corp (coincidence or not?). These meetings end up in a lot of backstory being exchanged between the characters. As such, the plot moves at a sedate pace. Imagine the travelers from Dan Simmons’ Hyperion, only not structured or executed as well. At times I felt like I was getting info dumped instead of story progress. And while the characters are interesting, they aren’t really that sympathetic. Not yet anyway.
So it’s a good thing that the universe Williams has created is just so darn cool. He packs a lot of interesting and unique ideas into this story. I’m really interested in seeing how the story unfolds and how the conspiracy plays out.
While not rising to the level of great Space Opera, not yet anyway, Saturn Rising is still a good read with a lot of promise for the books to come.