The Diamond Deep by Brenda Cooper
The Diamond Deep by Brenda Cooper (Pyr, 2013) is the second book in a duology called Ruby’s Song that began with Creative Fire, the story of revolution on a generation star ship on its way back home. Without FTL, travelling over interstellar distances takes several hundred years. This means some degree of degradation in the ship itself. No matter how robust the initial engineering, mechanical systems wear out and the hardware to run the ship’s control systems no longer works as efficiently. Similarly, the crew that left has long died off, to be replaced by subsequent generations. No matter how determined the crew may have been to maintain the knowledge and skills of the original crew, there’s inevitable loss in cognitive abilities. There was high competition to secure the places and, for the most part, only the very best of a large field of applicants was selected. Running a star ship rapidly becomes a boring routine of maintenance and repair. This allows time for the emergence of politics and the birth of conflict. The ship is now on it way back. Ruby Martin and Joel North have been doing their best to restore some degree of harmony following civil war.
With tensions still running high, the ship first encounters essentially silent attackers who send spider robots into one of the cargo bays. Ironically, at a time when all should be pulling together to defend the ship against external enemies, one faction seizes the opportunity to attack the bridge. That the current command survives is not, of itself, laudable. They control the atmosphere in the corridors approaching the control centre and suffocate the attackers. In due course, the ship arrives at the titular space station. If our heroes thought the return home was going to begin with a welcome, they are sorely disappointed. Imagine the problem of a major group who fought for George Washington landing in modern day America. They would find it rather difficult to understand the culture and the practicalities of everyday life.
If the first book is about the problem of a society in which a rigid hierarchical structure outstays its welcome, this book is about the unequal distribution of wealth and power in what is, to the returnees, akin to an alien world. Although the problems of social inequality between the two situations are broadly comparable, the space station has a different feel to it. In both halves of Ruby’s story, we’re dealing with space opera seen through the soft sciences lens. The trope of the generation star ship is well-established and the only difference between this book and other first contact stories is that this contact is with the home world displaced through time. To that extent, there’s nothing very original about the plot. If the book is going to be saved, the characterisation must be good and the social world building must be credible. Constructing a ship-based society is easier because the author begins with a command structure and very clearly defined roles for flight crew, engineering, defensive military forces, policing forces and the civilian crew. If status and entitlement to roles is passed down by inheritance rather than on merit, it’s inevitable there will be conflict as less competent children grow up in command or holding powerful roles. It’s significantly more difficult to create a future world that has comparable credibility when our innocent generation returns.
Brenda Cooper makes great play of asserting she based the character of Ruby on Eva Perón. Broadcasting such an explicit link is a considerable risk. The reputation of Peronism and of Eva’s role remains somewhat controversial. What’s clear is she was one of the first twentieth century political operatives to recognise the power of show-business celebrity to garner populist support and manipulate the electorate. In this book, Ruby comes from a “poor” background as a robot repair technician, but has a rare talent as a singer, a talent she uses to begin building a political consensus on the ship, and later to foster acceptance of the need to change when the ship reaches “home”. The problem is twofold. First, we all know how Eva Perón ended up so, if Brenda Cooper is basing her novel on the true story, we know how it has to end. Second, what’s wrong with allowing a book’s primary character to develop along original lines?
The whole point of fiction is the freedom to allow anything reasonably plausible to happen. Creativity can mirror real-world events, of course. There’s always great potential with allegories, parables and, if you’re in the mood, satires. But it worries me when some aspects of history are replayed as the plot of a science fiction duology. In a sense, I suppose I’m missing the red meat of real analysis or commentary. The best elements in allegories or satire arise from a critique of the society being explored. This is not to say the authors intend to educate readers. But everyone has a chance to reflect on the issues when they are presented as something more than mere space opera.
At this point, I’m forced to sound somewhat more patronising than usual. This is a very professional package. The prose smoothly presents the plot and the plot has plenty of stuff happening. But I found it all rather underwhelming. As written, the character of Ruby is worthy and well-intentioned, but rather uninvolving. The sociopolitical context for the action is also somewhat superficially presented. Hey, the folk from/of/with Creative Fire beat the stodgy power-brokers who want to rip them off. The best soft science fiction has more effort invested in the world building to explain the forces that produced this particular set of social structures. This is supposed to be a far future culture, yet it’s far from alien or difficult to understand. It’s just repeating the same mistakes humans have always made. The result is about average for this type of book, failing to match the greatness of books exploring political systems or the effects of the environment on the psychology of those who must live there. Rather The Diamond Deep is an adequate story with an emotional heart about a woman who wants to save her people from oppression. By way of an encore, Ruby will now sing “Kumbaya”.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.