Edge of Dark is a Compelling Read
What does it mean to be human? It’s a question that has vexed philosophers, scholars, scientists, and artists for centuries, from Thomas Aquinas to Philip K. Dick. Now Brenda Cooper takes a stab at the issue in her latest novel, EDGE OF DARK (the first of a duology — the sequel, SPEAR OF LIGHT, is due out next week, on June 7th from Pyr.) The book takes place in the far future, in a solar system that contains two settled planets and a number of immense colony stations that coexist in a complex, interconnected web called the Glittering. Several generations back from the time when the novel takes place, the human species banished a rogue splinter group of transhumanists who call themselves the Next to the outer edges of the system. The Next, interested in exploring the possibilities of robotics and artificial intelligence, had begun the process of merging with their machinery a la the Mechanists in Bruce Sterling’s novel SCHISMATRIX. (Note: This backstory has been explored in two previous Cooper novels, THE CREATIVE FIRE and THE DIAMOND DEEP, but it’s not necessary to read these beforehand — EDGE OF DARK stands well on its own.)
The book follows three protagonists in a tripartite narrative that converges quickly once the action gets underway. Our first protagonist is Charlie Windar, a ranger who works on Lym, a planet that was once nearly destroyed by humans who were eager to strip-mine its natural resources. Now, however, Lym functions as something of a large-scale nature preserve — Charlie and the other rangers are working in conjunction with the planet’s government to restore its original beauty. Our next main character, biology teacher Nona Hall, struggling to come to terms with her mother’s death at novel’s beginning, visits Lym to spread her parents’ ashes and to honor her father’s wish that she see a real sky (Nona was born and raised on the Diamond Deep, one of the colony stations, and has never set foot on a planet before.) While Nona is touring Lym with Charlie as her guide, the news comes down that an entire station, the High Sweet Home, has been attacked and towed away by a massive Next warship. It seems that, away from prying eyes in the cold depths of space, while the humans in the inner system were going about their lives and barely giving them any thought at all, the Next have finally managed to realize their ambitions. They are now truly the next step in evolution, as far beyond humanity as humanity is beyond the native wildlife they’ve been trying to preserve on Lym.
Our third protagonist is Chrystal Peterson, Nona’s best friend from childhood and one of the victims of the High Sweet Home attack. After Nona learns of the attack, she and Charlie leave on a diplomatic mission to the outer system in order to try and find out exactly what the Next want and if Chrystal is still alive. It’s in Chrystal’s viewpoint chapters that this book truly shines. After being taken prisoner by the Next, Chrystal and her family are transformed by them into something called “soulbots”, mechanical beings that retain their human memories but have lost a large degree of their emotional depth. In her new form, Chrystal is faster and stronger, her senses are more powerful, her speed of thought is far more rapid that it was before. But what has she lost, and was it worth it? Brenda Cooper’s examination of the philosophical issues ingrained in this setup are what makes the novel stand head and shoulders above the sea of less-thoughtful action-adventure space operas that flood the bookstore shelves.
Early in EDGE OF DARK, Charlie’s friend Jean Paul says, “Humans are dangerous and stupid.” This is borne out time and again in the following pages, as various factions fight amongst themselves for what little bit of power and control they can grasp instead of uniting in the face of their common enemy. Cooper’s novel exhibits a striking amount of moral complexity in addition to the philosophical depth, another factor that causes it to stand out from the crowd. While the book is not without its flaws — Cooper has a tendency, especially late in the novel, to write short James Patterson-esque two- or three-page chapters that propel the action forward but often don’t leave much room for the rich emotional depth that her characters display earlier, and the intricate political machinations generated by the various human factions can sometimes feel contrived — the reading experience is overall very rewarding. Cooper has created a fully-realized novel that manages to strike a nice balance between full-bodied characterization and an elaborate plot that keeps the reader engaged throughout.