Sunday, April 21, 2024

Review: The Scarab Mission, by James L. Cambias

Review: The Scarab Mission, by James L. Cambias

by Rich Horton

The Scarab Mission is one of what may become a series of books set some 8000 years in the future, in a very diversely populated Solar System, collectively called "The Ten Billion Worlds". There is a fundamental divide between the inner system and outer system -- the former dominated by AIs, the latter heavily populated by humans with a large admixture of AIs. Much of this goes back to a war in the Fourth Millennium, which led to the depopulation of Venus and Earth and nearly to the extinction of humans. I read and reviewed the first, The Godel Operation, a little while back -- The Scarab Mission, from 2023, is the second. I should emphasize that when I say "series" I don't mean that the books are closely linked -- really, they share only the setting and one character, though that character is less important in this book than in The Godel Operation (in which he was the narrator.)

This novel opens with a team of five approaching a derelict habitat, Safdaghar, in Jupiter's orbit. The team comprise the spacecraft itself, Yanai; an uplifted crow named Atmin; an intelligent dinosaur, Pera; a cyborg name Utsuro; and Solana, who was some years previously rescued from another habitat where she was raised to be a sex slave. Their mission is to stabilized Safdaghar's spin, to set it on a path where it will be slingshotted into deep space for later salvage, and to harvest whatever resalable stuff they can find on the habitat (mostly original works of art -- Safdaghar had been particularly devoted to supporting artists of all sorts.) One important artist who was believed to be on Safdaghar was a dissident poet from Deimos ...

There is more going on, of course. There is a great mystery as to how, and why, Safdaghar became derelict -- it had been a sudden catastrophe, years before. And Utsuro, the cyborg, was rescued in space and reconstructed as a cyborg, but with most of his memories lost -- and he is convinced he came from Safdaghar, and he hopes to find out something about his past.Once the team gets onto Safdagher and starts collecting stuff, things get trickier. There are occasional attacks -- as if someone else is still on the habitat, or if booby traps set back at the time of the disaster are still active.

Then another group arrives, apparently intent on salvaging stuff to resell as well. Taking the course of least resistance, Yanai and company allow them to come, agreeing to split the salvage. But this group, led by a creepy woman named Jaka, who seems to have means of controlling all her fellows, is much more dangerous, and violent, than they expect. In particular Jaka is a danger to Solana, as she gets off on dominating, essentially enslaving, others -- exactly the situation Solana had been rescued from. Things go from bad to worse, as Jaka slowly builds control, and as Utsuro begins to learn slight details of his past, and especially when it becomes clear that some very dangerous entity has survived on Safdaghar and is ready to attack members of both salvaging teams.

The novel builds to a long tense concluding chase, and there are powerful revelations about what really happened on Safdaghar, and what dangers still remain, and who may want all this knowledge hidden. It's an exciting action novel, with some terrible villains, and flawed heroes who learn to realize they can be villains too; and with worthwhile speculation about the nature of politics in this fascinating and complex and splintered future. It's fun, scary, and moving. More novels in this milieu will certainly be welcome!

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