BRIEF SYNOPSIS: The Creative Fire, generation ship and home to Ruby and her fellow crew, returns back to its home solar system and finds itself embroiled in power struggles on the eponymous space station.
PROS: Continues the strong character-based fiction and evocation of themes of the previous novel; stands well on its own despite being the second part of a duology.
CONS: Some world building elements feel underdone.
BOTTOM LINE: A fitting end to Ruby’s Song.
The Diamond Deep is the second half of the Ruby’s Song duology by Brenda Cooper, following The Creative Fire. Although enough of the backstory of the first novel is encapsulated in the second so that readers can pick up the plot and story, The Diamond Deep benefits from its layering of character development across novels, making the prior novel essential to understanding where Ruby and her friends, allies and rivals all come from — and understanding their situation in The Diamond Deep.
What is their situation? After centuries of space travel, the generation ship The Creative Fire is unrepairably falling apart. Systems, no matter how robustly built, are finally breaking down. It was just such a breakdown that propelled Ruby Martin to the attention of Joel North and the revolution that eventually upended the social order on the ship in the first place. Fortunately, even as the aging Creative Fire does not have much life left in it, their home system is within reach. However, things have changed greatly in the ensuing millenia. At a space station above their homeworld, Ruby’s voice may be the only thing keeping the inhabitants of ship from a life of serfdom or worse. And what of the dispossessed on the station? Might not they, too, respond to the power of an extraordinary voice?
Like in the first novel, theme and character is where Cooper’s talents lie. Ruby’s victory in The Creative Fire led to anything but a happily-ever-after with her partner, Joel, as the challenges of keeping the ship together as it approaches their home system mount higher and higher. The social conflicts Ruby has, with Joel, with her peers, and with the mass of the ship that followed her into revolution are strikingly portrayed. These conflicts erupt anew, and along new fault lines when the ship arrives at the titular space station, The Diamond Deep, and a whole new set of conflicts and problems result. Even though Ruby knows how potent her voice is as a weapon, a whole new set of challenges tax her and her considerable powers.
The book, like its predecessor, focuses on themes of social justice, disenfranchisement, the nature and distribution of power, and how we care for the citizens of society. Before the narrative puts the characters at the space station, the consequences of revolution and changing a hierarchy are nicely explored. When the story does take readers to The Diamond Deep, the world around the characters changes again. Far from being a simple recapitulation of the first novel’s stratified ship hierarchy, the social universe of The Diamond Deep is distinctly different. There is a real first contact feel to Ruby and the denizens of The Creative Fire coming to terms with alien cultures, alien technology and even an alien environment. Given that, Ruby’s impact on the The Diamond Deep, while as striking as her impact on The Creative Fire, takes different forms and has different consequences.
I generally like a fair amount of visible and highlighted world building in my science fiction and was left wanting more visible world building here. I would have liked to know more about how certain facets of this universe work. However, reservations on the amount of the world building on tap are more than matched by the strength and depth of character explorations, issues and themes. That is Cooper’s Kung-Fu in the Ruby’s Song duology, and it is strong.