Generation ship stories seem to come in and out of fashion. Or perhaps they’re always in fashion to some degree: certainly in the last few years we haven’t lacked for examples of the subgenre, including Elizabeth Bear’s Dust, Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Time, and Beth Revis’s Across the Universe. In Medusa Uploaded, Emily Devenport’s latest novel—adapted and expanded from her 2015 novella “The Servant,” published in Clarkesworld—the generation ship story comes complete with more than the usual number of secrets, murders, twists and lies.
Lots of murders.
Our first encounter with Medusa Uploaded’s protagonist, Oichi Angelis, comes in a prologue in which she’s ruminating on what kind of killer she is. And, in a general sort of way, on the reasons behind her murders: she kills for revenge, but also for a practical goal, for the purpose—or so it’s implied—of saving or bettering other people’s lives.
The starship Olympia is ruled by a caste of Executives, divided in families which compete for status and resources. The Olympia used to travel in concert with a sister ship, Titania, but the Titania was destroyed. Oichi knows that at least one family of Executives is responsible for Titania’s destruction—and she knows that her knowledge is dangerous. Her parents were quiet revolutionaries, working in secret against the hierarchy that constrains the inhabitants of the generation ships. They died with the Titania, but Oichi, a servant on the Olympia, survived. Her career as a socially-conscious partly-revenge-driven murderer doesn’t really begin, though, until she’s caught in a feud between two rival Executives and shot out the airlock.
Fortunately (and fortuitously), she’s rescued by a sentient AI, a Medusa unit, one of the secrets that the generation ships are keeping. The Executives may have meant to destroy the Medusa units in the destruction of the Titania, but most of them survived. Oichi bonds with the Medusa unit (Medusa, the first of its kind), forming a partnership that—it turns out—was something her parents were working towards, while they were alive. As Oichi conducts her careful programme of assassination and manipulation with Medusa’s aid, she slowly recruits other people to bond with Medusa units, to work for a future that might be better for all of them. But as Oichi uncovers more and more information about the inner workings of Executive society and the most important Executive families, she also discovers that there are people to whom the Executives report—people who come from outside the generation ship’s closed system.
Medusa Uploaded ends with hook for a further instalment of this story: forces outside the generation ship want something that only the denizens of the Olympia can provide. Perhaps Oichi’s skills with murder will continue to be called upon.
This is an interesting book. Ambitious: it’s told in a not-exactly-linear fashion, narrated by a protagonist who cannot necessarily be trusted to recount her experiences reliably. (I’m never entirely sure what to think of a protagonist who starts off by telling you they’re a serial killer, but it doesn’t exactly prime me to take their justifications at face value.) Oichi’s voice is compelling and easy to read.
The way in which the narrative jumps around in time, however, combined with Oichi’s numerous disguises and the large cast of characters, makes Medusa Uploaded feel somewhat disjointed. Individual sections are well-paced—Devenport has a good knack for action, and a strong hand with the drama of impersonation—but the overall pacing is choppy. In terms of characterisation, too, Medusa Uploaded doesn’t always shine. This may be in part because of Oichi’s quite narrow focus, but nonetheless, it means that the book has a harder time making me feel strongly about its characters and incidents than it otherwise might.
That said, there’s a good bit of cool shit and intrigue here, and the nested secrets and revelations are cunningly unfolded. Medusa Uploaded might not be mind-blowingly excellent (I have high standards, albeit low tastes) but it’s a damn fun ride, and very entertaining. I’ll be keeping my eyes out for a sequel.
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, was published in 2017 by Aqueduct Press and is nominated for a Hugo Award in Best Related Work. 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.