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A Solitude Of Stars




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A Solitude of Stars is disturbing and breathtaking in equal measure. It could be called a science-fiction dystopia, but I think the book goes much deeper than that.

What interested me very much was how to tell the story of the Apparat and Dirigiste societies ranging across our local planetary system seeking peace by waging war to achieve it - much as we do today - while also weaving in elements of a wider galactic history, a history that links both forwards and backwards to the core narrative.

Solitude raises the question: is humanity actually capable of peace? Solitude is an incredible flight of imagination - creating these worlds, technology, and pathos with considerable authority.



You wake up with the subliminal hum of engines in your head. Shifts are changing. Hot-bunking. Space is at a premium, the notion of which loses its humorous appeal after a few days and nights on the ship. Not that you can tell day from night here. There are no windows in the pressure hull. There is nothing to see beyond the infinitely shaded greys of bulkhead and console, beyond the mnemonics, codes and glyphs that shine upon screens and control pads. Star-shine seen with the naked eye, burns retinas to a crisp. And then alarm bells ring. A weary looking head appears, poking through the curtains that screen your bunk bed from this grey-green world beyond. Rough hands nudge you awake. You pull the curtain fully back and see a gaunt face covered in stubble and grime.
We live in world where regular time is measured by eight hours on and eight hours off, an endless rotation of bodies filling spaces too small to be anything other than a brief and fitful respite from the grind of the watch. Life on board is about orientation. You learn quickly not to sit up. The bulkhead above the top bunk dents your skull. After a couple of days nursing a headache, basic instinct cuts in. One man rolls onto his front, swings his legs out of the bunk and another man climbs into the stinking warmth of the bed. Eventually you become so tired that you’re asleep before your head hits the saliva-stained pillow. This is daily life on K-47, a Hunter-Killer, Dirigiste Seventh Fleet, on convoy attack patrol right out at the edge of the Kuiper Belt, a lone wolf hunting amid the ice worlds. We are all at sea in a silent storm, on the very edge of our slowly revolving, ecliptic star-ocean, where our still intrinsically flat earth civilisation meets the terrible, mechanistic reality of the Outworlds.
Get a profession, my parents said, something safe, a way to earn a living without venturing off Gaia. It’s a cultural thing, I guess. A desire for solidity and stability. A direct attempt to head me off from that fly-by-night military jingoism. Journalism is my bag. After college, I spent two years as a cub reporter on independent network news and then came the inevitable conscription. I have a profession, a track record. I spent those heady two years as a civilian reporter drinking and screwing my way around navy ports; two years of reporting on ship movements, tragic losses and heroic returns. I loved the dirty bustle of the space ports, where life is black and white. You learn or you burn. When the call up came, the recruiters smiled sweetly and told me to join one of the Dirigiste Navy Tri-D crews. My first assignment? Embedded on a glory ship. My name is Jeung Zhou. This is shit.
You have an image in your head as a kid; shiny surfaces, flashing lights, metallic voices and red-shift, of something clean and bright and deadly. That’s just science fiction. Sure, the big guns, the capital ships, they look impressive on the surface, and complex systems do have a beauty all their own, especially when they ride across the skies in vast tonnage, but the reality of war is never like those old films. This is the cutting edge, the exposed blade, serrated and notched, unsheathed and inimically bloody. There’s a smell about the place, a rotting drift that you would think impossible to live with, but it only takes a day or two to get used to the stink.
I am, technically, a junior officer, one of thirty-one souls on board the K-47, which makes the mess spaces a little cramped. A K-Ship runs double-banked shifts of fifteen officers and engineers at most; the officers comprising the Captain, First and Second Watch Officers, and the Chief Engineer. Only the Captain gets a cabin. The rest of us make do with bunks slotted in around machinery that never sleeps in its effort to keep us alive. The designers of this bucket made some allowances for the necessities of life, though, and the heads are clean and sufficient, although showers are rationed to one per crew member every four days. Grey water. Nothing beats the simple luxuries. In truth, we can keep clean in other ways, but there’s something incredibly humanising about a hot shower, so long as you don’t dwell on the fact that everything on board is recycled.
The officers’ ready room, which doubles as our small but reasonably private mess, is in the central section of the ship, just to the rear of the main control room. What passes for breakfast is already underway when I swing myself through the pressure door bulkhead. Silence. The Chief is concentrating on spooning soup into her mouth, and the Captain is scanning through daily orders. Lewis, the Second Watch Officer has already eaten and hit the sack. Dewey, our good ‘ole Louisiana homeboy First Officer, is on the bridge. You have to be thankful for small mercies in a place like this and elbowroom is definitely one of those mercies. As I slide into the space recently vacated by Second Officer Lewis, the replicator panel is already rising at the far end of the table. The soup is hot, but that’s about all you can say in its favour. Food is basic out here, full of the necessary proteins, carbohydrates and vitamins needed to sustain a body, but hardly a highlight of the day.
The Captain, who is generally referred to as the Boss, looks at me and grins. “So, Newbie, sick and tired of all these drills?” Standard Dirigiste inflected Anglo. Germanic undertones.
We’ve been on patrol, wandering across and around the ecliptic for six weeks without a sniff. To keep the crew on their toes the Boss has had us on crash drills, attack drills and emergency manoeuvres almost every shift. You can tell when he’s planning something. There’s a look that passes between him, the Officer of the Watch and the Chief, a wry little smile that marks the moment when the alarm is sounded, orders are coded and the core AI broadcasts messages across the ship’s communications system:
“Cloak! Run silent! Brace for impact!”
These sequences and call-outs are a throwback, an accommodation for frail bodies, a means of galvanising and reassuring a hairless ape who has the audacity to travel the heavens. We are, this skeleton crew, insurance, a maverick thought amid the Artificial Intelligences that run the ship. We can do the unexpected, and it’s precisely those random variations that will bring us home alive and kicking. At least, that’s the theory.
It’s also a commentary on the comparative norms out here. The Apparat, or as we generally call them, the ‘Iceheads’, have been our enemy for some three hundred years now, and have chosen to go down the route of augmentation and adaptation. They are, allegedly, one organism, some sort of hybrid organo-tech bent on some weird evolutionary jihad. To be honest, no one I’ve spoken to on the ship really believes these extremes of Dirigiste propaganda, and I’ll probably earn myself a bout of political reorientation for saying it, but out here, right now, no one cares. The Iceheads are just people, like us, trying to survive the best way they can. We’ve kept the human element essential and fragile and unaugmented because we outnumber the Iceheads by sixty-to-one. We can afford the luxury of our apparent mutability.
The Boss makes a couple of audio notes to the daily orders, folds and tucks the tablet into his jacket pocket and slides out from the table, heading for the bridge at the prow of the ship. Before he disappears forwards through the next pressure hatch, he turns and says, “We’ll see whether you’ve got the stomach for the navy eh, Kinder?”
The Chief wipes the last of the soup out of her bowl with a hunk of shroom bread and sucks it dry before swallowing it. She wipes her chin with the back of her sleeve and she too slides out from the table. She raises an eyebrow as she leaves the mess, muttering, ‘Poor sod,’ to herself. She goes aft to check on her beloved field generator. I don’t know if she means me or the enemy.
That’s it, the sum total of the morning’s conversation, so I finish my soup alone, feeling the heat of the liquid settling in my stomach as the daily butterflies start to rise. The excitement of the chase. God alone knows what the kill will feel like. There is no God, of course, not in Sol Dirigisme. I guess I’m really praying to my inner demon…

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