BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Ruby Martin, bot technician trainee on a class-riven generation starship, struggles for freedom and the rights of her underclass peers.
PROS: Captivating main character; strong character-focused story with strong themes; stunning cover art.
CONS: A couple of Ruby’s relationships feel a bit false.
BOTTOM LINE: The Creative Fire is a powerful opening half to a planned diptych of novels.
Ruby Martin lives on The Creative Fire, a generation starship, making its way between the stars. As one of the underclass, called ‘greys’ by the classes above her, she feels she is destined to live out her life as a robot technician quietly toiling away, unappreciated and unnoticed, in the bowels of the ship. An accident exposes Ruby to the world above. At the same time, the shakeup caused by the accident provides Ruby with the opportunity to try and reach that greater world. Little does Ruby realize that her gifts are stronger than she suspects, and her charisma, voice, thirst for knowledge, and potential leadership skills are perhaps more powerful than any weapon on board the ship, if she is only allowed the chance to use them.
The Creative Fire is the first book of Ruby’s Song, a planned pair of novels from Brenda Cooper exploring a multitude of themes and ideas, centered on a character inspired by the story and character Eva Peron. Ruby Martin is a prodigy of a singer, who uses the power of her voice, fortune, chance and her own daring to try and change the unfairness of the world she was born in.
The novel’s greatest strength are its characters. Ruby (practically a YA protagonist, although not really a YA novel), is complex, flawed, and driven by conflicting impulses. She is one of the more well rounded characters I have come across recently in science fiction. Set against a background of characters in a complex skein,ranging from her fellow greys to the very highest echelons of the ship, she is a transformative, disruptive, and an undeniable influence on all that come into contact with her.
There are a number of other interesting characters including Ruby’s friend (who carries a torch for her), Onor, who provides our other major viewpoint in the novel. As Ruby rises into the higher echelons of the ship, he remains below, providing a man-on-the-street perspective. This is an especially valuable narrative as events start rolling toward deadly conflict between factions on the ship. Another interesting character is Ix, the sentient AI that runs The Creative Fire. Not quite autonomous, Ix is all the more fascinating because we see it removed from the rest, and the goals of those who try and manipulate it are often at odds with each other. This makes Ix something of a fun-house mirror of Ruby, and their relationship throughout the book is as important.
The themes evoked in the novel are the other major strength. Issues ranging from class, fairness and empowerment to women’s rights are touched upon and explored. Like the symbol that Ruby comes to use in the novel, the themes are braided together into the narrative. What I had expected to be solely a character study in a technological universe instead is a character-focused drama that touches deep themes and ideas that speak to the issues of today, in the high tradition of science fiction.
The only real weaknesses of the novel, as far as I am concerned, is that some of the relationships in and around Ruby feel underwritten and don’t live up to their potential. A couple of these potentially crucial relationships wind up fading or disappearing entirely as the narrative progresses. It is a disappointment in such a character-focused novel, but as compared to the rest of the strengths of the novel, isn’t as damaging as one might fear.
An important point is that the novel is not hard science fiction and does not explore the setting in hard detail. Those looking for nuts and bolts of generation starships are going to be disappointed in The Creative Fire. This has a very different feel than, say, the recent Greg Bear novel Hull Zero Three or some of the older classics exploring the concept. The focus is firmly on the characters and sociology of the classes on board, rather than the mechanics of how the ship works.
What The Creative Fire does, and does well, is marry the character-driven focus of Cooper’s writing with an intriguing protagonist, a well thought out setting and spins a fascinating story. I most definitely want to read the second volume of Ruby’s Song.