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Two engineers hijack a spaceship to join some space pirates — only to discover the pirates are hiding from a malevolent AI. Now they have to outwit the AI if they want to join the pirate crew — and survive long enough to enjoy it.
Adda and Iridian are newly minted engineers, but aren’t able to find any work in a solar system ruined by economic collapse after an interplanetary war. Desperate for employment, they hijack a colony ship and plan to join a famed pirate crew living in luxury at Barbary Station, an abandoned shipbreaking station in deep space.
But when they arrive there, nothing is as expected. The pirates aren’t living in luxury — they’re hiding in a makeshift base welded onto the station’s exterior hull. The artificial intelligence controlling the station’s security system has gone mad, trying to kill all station residents and shooting down any ship that attempts to leave — so there’s no way out.
I’ve been excited for this one ever since Navah Wolfe first started talking about it, describing it as “lesbian women of color space pirates vs a murderous AI” on Twitter. I’ve been waiting since then with bated breath to get my hands on Stearns’ debut, and Barbary Station is finally here!
Barbary Station is primarily a fun novel about swashbuckling pirates, even with the darker concerns at its heart. The whole book is focused on a rather simple premise, of a kind perhaps familiar to players of Portal: the need to use intelligence and brute force in combination to escape a murderous situation in which the clock is ticking down to inevitable death. Stearns plays with the concept a little by expanding the group who need rescuing – not just the protagonist, or her and her lover, but a whole merc group cum pirate crew and a group of refugees trapped on the space station too.
The writing is, on the whole, the breeziness that this kind of plot needs; Barbary Station is tense and dramatic, but those things meant to raise the stakes don’t land with quite the emotional force Stearns needed. While no one is safe, and child death is used on multiple occasions as an emblem of ruthlessness on the part of those opposing our protagonists, these deaths are little felt, in part because we don’t tend to know the characters well; even to the rest of the cast, they feel passing, as the impacts wear off too quickly. The action scenes are where Stearns is at her best; fast-paced and slightly chaotic, they don’t feel choreographed, and that makes those parts of Barbary Station the best by a distance.
Stearns’ other strength is the relationship between three of her characters, the two viewpoint protagonists and one secondary; that is, Iridian, Adda, and Adda’s brother Pel. Barbary Station is told in alternating chapters from the viewpoint of Adda and Iridian, and their love is touching and beautifully written; the way each is deeply concerned with the safety of others and knows their own, and each other’s, strengths is movingly told. They are the central star around which the other orbits, and Stearns gets that emotional payload across without it feeling forced or meaningless. Barbary Station‘s only other emotional weight is that between Adda and Iridian, as newcomers to the station, and Pel, Adda’s brother but who brought them to the station with promises of wealth; it’s a well written developing relationship that really does help to ground everything.
Unfortunately, the relationships within the rest of the crew, and between crew and Adda and Iridian, are much less solid. Barbary Station tends towards light characterisation, and lightly worn emotion; things that should have extremely heavy emotional impact might have that briefly, but then it rapidly wears off – just as Stearns has physical impacts surprisingly rapidly vanish from the characters. This gives a sense of superficiality to the book; nothing particularly matters to the characters for long, and where Stearns is trying to invest us in them, that really falls down.
A final problem for Barbary Station is how contrived it becomes as the action ramps up to the climax. Stearns introduces not only multiple additional vectors of problems, but also a whole new faction, to the station as she brings things to their head; the split in reader attention is frustrating and the attempt to heighten all the stakes at once actually just serves to undercut all the stakes before, as if Stearns hadn’t felt like there was any danger until this moment so had to add more. Barbary Station comes to a head less with a bang than a bit of a chaotic whimper, sadly.
In the end, I’m judging Barbary Station by the wrong standards, though. Stearns doesn’t appear to be writing high literature; she’s writing a fun, swashbuckling novel, with action and (well-written lesbians). On that front, at least, she unequivocally succeeds; just don’t look too deep.
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