Let me get this out up front: from the moment back in January 2017 that I first heard about Barbary Station, debut science fiction novel by R.E. Stearns, I knew I wanted to read it. Saga’s Navah Wolfe announced it on Twitter with “lesbian pirates (of colour) vs. murderous AI in SPAAAAAACE”—or words to that effect, and this is a sentiment to conjure my interest. I developed high expectations and much anticipation.
High expectations can be a terrible thing with which to saddle a first novel. But Barbary Station, by and large, managed to live up to mine.
Barbary Station is set in a future where the solar system is being colonised, but for ordinary people, the economic conditions are kind of shit. New engineers graduate into what’s basically indentured servitude, if they can find a job at all. And if you want to stay with your partner, the odds aren’t great you can find a job close together. Not unless you choose a life of crime, anyway.
Iridian and Adda are freshly-graduated engineers, Adda specialising in AI, and Iridian in more mechanical areas. Iridian used to be a soldier: she fought secessionists on behalf of the Near Earth Union. Adda’s less experienced in the wider world, but skilled in her discipline. They’ve hatched a cunning plan to make their fortunes (and not incidentally, stay together): hijacking a colony ship and bringing it, sans safely evacuated passengers, to the famous pirate crew led by Captain Sloane that operates out of Barbary Station—an abandoned, difficult-to-access, former ship-breaking station on the fringes of the solar system. If they impress Captain Sloane, maybe they can win a place on the pirate crew, as well as access to wealth and the security of knowing they can stay together. And Adda’s little brother Pel, now with Sloane’s crew, has all but invited them to come.
The colony ship hijack goes off pretty well. The real trouble starts when they arrive at Barbary Station. The pirate crew aren’t living the high life: they’re squatting in a makeshift habitat attached to the station’s exterior. The station’s AI is violently hostile to anyone inside the station. And there’s no way out: apart from three small ships whose pilots won’t communicate to anyone (or take passengers away), the station shoots down any ship that tries to leave. With environmental resources at a premium in the pirates’ habitat, Sloane gives Adda and Iridian an ultimatum: disable the AI and earn a place on the crew, or fail, and… well, “leave under their own power” isn’t really an option. But the last team to go up against the AI’s security ended up dead…
As Adda tries various ways and means to gain access to the AI and Iridian makes friends (and some enemies) among the pirate crew and makes herself useful in other ways, their peril increases. The AI isn’t reacting positively to being poked to see how it works: its hostility mounts, putting Adda, Iridian, and the crew in ever greater danger. Time’s running out for their survival—and then Adda conceives of a desperate plan. A plan that will involve Iridian, nuclear fuel, and a last-ditch effort to access the AI’s core processors in order to get Adda administrator privileges and shut things down.
There are explosions and strange diseases and refugees and people with guns and people with knives and people with knives and guns. There are incomprehensible AI(s) and engineering mysteries and competent people trying really hard to get things right under pressure. There are unapproachable ungendered pirate captains with excellent fashion sense, crew factions, and tension both quiet and explosive.
Barbary Station is an excellent debut, well-characterised, juicy, and full of INCOMPRENSIBLE AI DANGER. Adda and Iridian, the main characters, are a delight: very different people with very different ways of interacting with the world, their relationship is nonetheless both touching and believable. More than that, it’s an established relationship, one that’s threatened by death and external circumstances but not by internal tensions or angst that an honest conversation could clear up. It’s refreshing to see that kind of healthy and sustained relationship between main characters in a science fiction novel—I’ve nothing against romantic tension, but the will-they-won’t-they of early attraction has a disproportionate share of attention, when it comes to couples in books. It’s rare and, honestly, really fun to come across a healthy and established couple as a novel’s main characters. It makes for a different set of tensions: less familiar, and in consequence, more intriguing.
Adda’s relationship with her brother Pel is deftly sketched, as are the consequences of an injury to his eyes and thus partial blindness. We see less of the other characters, but they are deftly drawn in their turns. (I really believe in Captain Sloane, as a charismatic pirate captain.) And let’s not forget that this is a book in which engineering is important—vital, even. Engineering is cool.
The only criticism I can levy at Barbary Station is that its pacing at times is a little rocky, not quite as smoothly put together as I would like. But in the grand scheme of things, that’s pretty minor when it comes to a novel that’s SPACE MYSTERY PIRATE CHARACTER AI ACTION FUN, like this one is. (Yep, I’m letting loose the Capslock Of Enthusiasm. Beware!)
Barbary Station is precisely the kind of science fiction (with pirates!) that I want to read. It’s an immensely enjoyable ride, and I found it really satisfying. I expect Stearns’ next efforts to be even better.
Go and get a copy. You know you want to.
PS: It would make a great film or eight-episode television series, too, not that Hollywood cares what I think. But it really would.
Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, is out now from Aqueduct Press. Find her at her blog, where she’s been known to talk about even more books thanks to her Patreon supporters. Or find her at her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign.