I sometimes think every writer of military science fiction is secretly (some not so secretly) trying to write Horatio Hornblower in space. That would be terrific for me as a reader, since I loved the Horatio Hornblower stories of daring, honour, valour, and ingenuity overcoming adversity rather than brute force. Alas, I’ve never really found a science fiction series that gave me those same Hornblower vibes while offering a believable and intriguing context in which those adventures could take place.
Artifact Space is what fans of Star Trek the Next Generation who’ve longed for something updated and more reflective of a diverse human society yet still holds to that same core of optimism and idealism about human beings have been waiting for. It’s filled with intriguing space ship troubles, conflicts large and small, the spirit of camaraderie one would hope we’d achieve when going into space, and yet with all the intricacies of our human foibles intact rather than glossed over.
The story centres on Marca Nbaro, a new midshipper on the Greatship Athens – a massive space faring vessel run not by a purely benevolent government but by a consortium of business interests inspired (one suspects) by Venetian mercantile culture. Marca has a troubled past, and the things she’s had to do to get a position on the Athens frequently leave her vulnerable to those out to get her. But she also finds friends aboard the ship, and a growing sense of purpose even as the near-calamitous situations she winds up in reveal her strengths.
Because I’m not a frequent reader of sci-fi (not because I don’t like the genre but because I often don’t quite get it due to my own ineptitude), I often find myself shunted out of a book because the science is either so sparse as to be magic or so lovingly rendered as to be a textbook about things that don’t work in the real world. Kind of like when you read a fantasy novel with four thousand houses, countries, shires, and whatever else and realize you’ve just memorized a history that won’t actually help you at all in your daily life. Artifact Space manages to find a path for the reader in which the science of space travel is balanced against an equally enticing and complex culture and economy. Yes, I meant that: the economics are actually interesting here. More importantly, Cameron never piles on so much at once that you find yourself lost amidst figures and facts about either space travel or the intricate human culture that’s achieved it.
Another aspect of Artifact Space I enjoyed was that – as one would expect on a massive ship hurtling through space – the book is somewhat episodic. It’s not one long, drawn-out singular problem (though there is a mystery that threads the entire narrative), but more the ongoing adventures of Marca NBaro and the crew of the Greatship Athens. If that sounds like a pitch for this to be a television series, it is; I really, really want to see this as a TV show that sits somewhere between Star Trek the Next Generation and The Expanse.
Anyway, enough gushing. Let me grind my axe against the insufferably talented Miles Cameron here a moment by saying I wish he’d added a glossary and dramatis personae to the book. Every acronym, concept, and character is explained, but if you glide over those parts, you’ll find yourself later wondering what the heck that term is they keep using every time they’re referring to the organization they work for or the ones it competes against. However, if you’re reading this review, then I can save you lots of trouble later on by advising that you pay close attention when terms and characters are introduced. Cameron doesn’t drop stuff in for the hell of it – everything will be meaningful at some point in the story.
Artifact Space is the beginning of what I hope will be a huge series, rich in characters and the textures of a space faring society. For those like me who want to read sci-fi but often feel like an outsider looking in when picking up a science fiction novel, Artifact Space is a welcoming delight.