by Joel Shepherd
Published by Prometheus
467 pages, 2006
The Genre of Big Ideas
Reviewed by Andi Shechter
One of the charges often leveled at science fiction is that it's not serious. Those who read "literature" often won't consider anything labeled science fiction. Usually the reasons have to do with misconceptions about what s.f. is or was. Sometimes it seems that readers who sneer at the genre don't think it handles issues that are important. That it's all rocket ships and imagination. Of course, some of us like it that way and wouldn't change a thing.
Science fiction which is full of stories of wild imaginings and space travel is also the history of deep personal issues and ideas of huge import. Often all in the same story. Whether there's an underlying theme about censorship or global warming, xenophobia or brainwashing, gender identification or whether we're alone in the universe and where that universe came from, of course s.f. is serious stuff. The joy of much science fiction is that it can be read on the "serious literature" level or the "adventurous wowee new idea" level. Or both.
I mention this because Joel Shepherd's Crossover is an example of a book that brings up the gosh-wow excitement of futuristic ideas at the same time that it -- very sneakily, I might add -- tackles one of the basic themes of modern-day science fiction: what is human? What is it to be a human being? Fans of the genre, as well as experts on computers and artificial intelligence, can talk knowledgeably about ELIZA and about Turing tests. Literary buffs can quote Mark Twain's line about how "man is the only animal that blushes -- or needs to." It's a fascinating and occasionally scary topic. You're not required to think heavy thoughts of deep philosophical import while reading Crossover if you don't want to. Or you can. It's up to you.
In this novel, his first, Joel Shepherd introduces Cassandra Kresnov, a highly developed, extremely convincing and expensive android. She's designed as a "hunter killer" and she is an experiment. She is not a human being, although she looks and operates like one. She can think, she can do everything (mostly) that humans can including create, have sexual relations, make complex decisions. But she was not born, she was designed.
When we meet her, she's trying very hard not to be Kresnov the android. She's attempting to live what passes as a normal human life as April Cassidy. The world she is on contains a huge metropolis, where she might be able to hide but it's not long before her deception is discovered. Since Kresnov is not human, she is feared. She does not have the rights that a human has, and at times she's treated horribly. Since Kresnov was so highly developed and skilled, she's more than an automaton, way more than an android/artificial being; what makes her valuable is the combination of technological parts and human judgment and insights.
Much of the political jockeying Shepherd reveals is ugly and messy and I got lost and a bit bored trying to track it all. Where he succeeds is in offering an intelligent story about an intelligent being. If you met Kresnov, you might like her. You could certainly have a conversation with her about art or music, abstracts like beauty or philosophy, everyday things like food. But she was manufactured, and you're not allowed to forget that, as the character is not allowed to forget. When she goes against much of her training or programming and acts heroically, it throws off many assumptions that people have about her. And it makes her harder to dismiss and harder to destroy.
There are many people in Kresnov's world who fear and hate her, will hate her forever and for whom she is an "it": artificial, built for singular martial purposes. But she also has allies and friends; some small, some large and powerful. Crossover is thus a story about someone struggling to prove, against pretty much all odds, that despite not being human in basic ways, she is most assuredly human in other ways, where it matters. Defining that concept is a matter of far more than simple biology.
I thought Shepherd could have cut maybe 30 to 50 pages of this book since there were times of "okay, we got it," both in scenes of violence and the political infighting. However, for the most part, ideas are offered cleanly and without expository dullness. Shepherd shows, avoids telling and lets the reader draw her own conclusions, thank you. Everything rings true, even the complex relationships of the androids with each other. The internal logic of the worlds holds together.
It's the future, or it's an alternate future. It's technology and it's bigger-than-global politics. It's adventure and it's military science fiction (far too much for my liking, I admit. I don't care how big or cool the guns are, I still don't like reading about them and they bore me. Blood is icky.)
Shepherd even leaves this first book (first of three) in a solid place, where you can go to the next one, while at the same time having a distinct ending to this story. This "where do I stop?" dilemma is often a weakness in first books that are parts of longer series. Not so here.
Crossover was originally published in Australia, where the author lives and where books two and three have already been published. I look forward to reading Breakaway (due out next April in the United States) and Killswitch because I want to know what happens to Kresnov as she figures out who the hell she is and deals with the huge contradictions in her existence. This is an exciting story, a well-written adventure, and an impressive debut novel. | August 2006
Andi Shechter has been a publicist, chat host, interviewer, convention-planner, essayist and reviewer. She lives in Seattle with far too many books, an old-but-cute purple computer, not enough soft toys (including a small but select hedgehog and gorilla collection), many figure skating videotapes and an esoteric collection of hot sauces. There's a Hugo Award on her mantelpiece which belongs to her partner, cartoonist and artist Stu Shiffman.