R.E. Stearns’ debut novel, Barbary Station, exploded its way close to my heart with its narrative of lesbian space engineers, pirates, and murderous AI. A measured, tensely claustrophobic narrative, it hinted that Stearns might be a voice to watch. Now in Mutiny at Vesta, Barbary Station‘s sequel, Stearns has written a worthy successor, one that makes me feel that tensely claustrophobic is the corner of slower-than-light space opera that Stearns has staked out as her playing field.
One can’t help but feel for Adda Karpe and Iridian Nassir, the protagonists of both Barbary Station and now Mutiny at Vesta. They may have each other—they may now be married to each other—but they seem to have a decided knack for setting their courses out of the frying pan and into the fire.
Adda and Iridian turned to piracy to stay together. Now wanted criminals across the solar system, they’ve earned places in the crew of infamous pirate Captain Sloane and escaped from Barbary Station—together with Adda’s kid brother Pel and three awakened, unshackled AIs whose motives are incomprehensible but who possess a disturbing amount of interest in Sloane and/or Adda. Adda is an AI engineer, a very talented one, and views the presence of awakened, self-aware, autonomous AIs as a slightly hazardous but potentially useful and definitely interesting development. Iridian’s skills lie in other directions, and she has a rather more jaundiced view of uncontrollable AIs with very alien thought processes: her view is that they’re fucking dangerous.
(Iridian’s opinion is borne out by events.)
The survivors of Sloane’s crew expected to return home in triumph to Vesta (the second-largest object in the asteroid belt, after Ceres). But it turns out that in Sloane’s enforced absence, other interests have moved into Vesta. The megacorporation Oxia has essentially claimed Vesta as its own territory, and has the ability to force Sloane into a contract to work for them. So Adda and Iridian find themselves (albeit at one remove) working for the same sort of megacorp that they set off into piracy to escape.
The jobs Oxia’s representative demands Sloane’s crew do aren’t jobs that the pirate captains would necessarily choose themselves. They’re doing Oxia’s quiet dirty work, but to what end? Why does a megacorp need a pirate crew?
Adda and Iridian are at the centre of these jobs. Though Iridian is doubtful about it, Adda knows Sloane sees the two engineers as a threat to their continued control of their pirate crew. What neither Adda nor Iridian realise—Adda, because of her increasing absorption in work and with the awakened AIs, and Iridian because Iridian doesn’t see the threat that she and Adda present—is that Sloane is laying the groundwork for them to take the blame for the worst of the shit that Oxia is compelling Sloane and their crew to do.
When matters come to a head—when Sloane and Adda and Iridian discover the reason that Oxia wants a pirate crew doing their dirty work, and when they disagree on what to do with the information they’ve uncovered; when violence descends on Vesta and the awakened AIs influence Adda to do things that she would never have considered on her own—a definitive split between Iridian, Adda, and their employer seems inevitable. Can Iridian and Adda escape with their lives, and each other?
Spoiler (because we’ve all seen too many dead lesbians): yes. But only at the cost of leaping from this frying pan into another fire.
If Barbary Station was a variant on the gothic novel in space (complete with a haunted house in the form of a space station), Mutiny at Vesta is a nested, layered series of capers in which Adda and Iridian work with limited resources and the pressure of time and other people’s competing priorities to pull off the damn-near impossible. There’s a real joy in watching the solidity of their relationship, their commitment to each other, Iridian’s willingness to let Adda do her thing and Adda’s respect for Iridian’s own competences—even as we see the ways in which they fail each other from the best intentions, from youth and inexperience and well-meaning certainty that you can fix the thing before anyone else needs to worry. (PSA: It’s generally a bad idea to keep dangerous secrets from your lover to avoid distressing her.)
Stearns writes measured, tense, and intense space opera, filled with a diverse selection of believable characters. I really enjoyed this book. Adda and Iridian are a lot of fun to read about. I’m definitely looking forward to reading more of their adventures.
Though I do hope that one of these days they stop falling out of one disaster and into another. Seems like eventually they might deserve a rest.
Mutiny at Vesta is available from Saga Press.
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. It was a finalist for the 2018 Locus Awards and was 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, the Transgender Equality Network Ireland, and the Abortion Rights Campaign.