I’m sure anyone who’s paid attention to my science fiction novel recommendations has noticed that I love space opera. But as much as I love the genre, I’m often aware of an issue many of its stories have. In order to have the characters be in jeopardy, they often ignore the implications of artificial intelligence. For instance, I love James S. A. Corey’s Expanse books, but the fact that the characters are often depicted doing dangerous jobs that robots could be doing has always struck me as a world building flaw.
Alex Lamb’s Roboteer series, to some extent, addresses this issue. It posits a universe where large interstellar warships have a small human crew (4-5 people), but where most of the work is actually done by robots. In the first book, a crew specialist, a “roboteer”, mentally controls the robots with brain implants, although by the third book all the crew members are effectively roboteers.
The main protagonist, Will Kuno-Monet, is one of the early roboteers at the beginning of the first book. His augmentations also give him access to a virtual reality, and so a substantial part of the story happens in virtual settings.
In this universe, humans have colonized other star systems, and have a faster than light technology based on the Alcubierre warp drive concept, but with constraints due to the physics of the drive that limit destinations to stars on a “galactic shell”, a thin area of roughly consistent distance from the galactic core. In the shell, the spacetime properties are the same in front of and behind the warp ship. Travelling between shells, where the spacetime properties vary, fouls the warp drive, making faster than light travel between the shells impossible.
This effectively puts limits on interstellar expansion, allowing travel in a circle around the galaxy but not toward its center or edge, and explains, along with other story elements, the Fermi paradox, the question of why Earth has never been colonized by aliens. Part of the plot is the discovery of regions that serve as bridges to other shells, and new unexplored regions of the galaxy.
In the first book, Earth is ruled by a theocracy that is asserting its dominion over all the other human worlds. Many of the colonies are resisting, but they are falling one by one. The main characters are from a world called Galatea whose citizens engage in genetic editing, controlling the traits of their children. Earth’s theocracy regards this and any resulting offspring as an abomination that must be eradicated. So the Galateans see the war as one of survival.
Earth appears to have developed a new weapon. Will and his shipmates are sent on a mission to learn about it. It quickly becomes evident that Earth is getting the weapon technology from an alien source, a very advanced and powerful alien civilization. But the aliens have their own agenda, one that involves assessing humanity’s worth and deciding whether to wipe it out or guide it to a higher level of maturity. Will ends up establishing a connection with the aliens, and finds himself on a broader mission to save the overall human race.
As the series progresses, the situation for humanity becomes increasingly precarious, with a new threat introduced in the second book. By the beginning of the third book, the humans are in a desperate fight for survival, and losing, making the tension in the third book very high.
My reason for recommending this series is its overall exploration of what it means to be human. The early portions are dominated by the clash between different human cultures, but toward the end it becomes a sublime exploration of how human evolution may progress, looking at questions of free will, personal identity, the architecture of the mind, and the nature of happiness, particularly whether happiness achieved by altering the mind counts as the real thing.
A couple of quick caveats.
The first may actually attract some of you but leave others uncomfortable. Religion features heavily in this series, but its depiction is consistently and relentlessly negative, particularly in the first two books. The third book rarely mentions it explicitly, but explores religious themes, and again those themes are presented in a pretty harsh light.
The second caveat is that, although the series has a pretty satisfying ending, the overall message about reality ends up being pretty stark. It’s one a lot of people will intensely dislike. I enjoyed the books, but I’m not sure myself how to feel about that final message.
That said, if you like hard core but intelligent space opera, then you’ll find a lot to like here. There’s a lot of nerd candy in these stories. Lamb does an excellent job of exploring cool technologies and extremely strange alien cultures and biology. Whatever my feelings about the ending, he makes the journey a lot of fun. And he is very skilled at creating dramatic tension and suspense. The books are thrilling adventure stories where you can often feel the desperate pinch the characters are in.
I enjoyed them enough that I’m going to keep a close eye out for future work by Lamb. I think the blurbs on the covers from Stephen Baxter are right, he’s a major new talent.