Space, even the deep space between the stars, is not entirely empty. As far as we can tell at present, the matter scattered through interstellar space is lifeless. But…appearances can be deceiving. Even if they are not, there’s enough story in the idea of vast beings living in the interstellar depths to attract SF writers. Here are five books that took the idea and ran with it…
Angel Station by Walter Jon Williams (1990)
Williams is something of a protean author. In this work, he is in full-bore C.J. Cherryh mode: his free trader protagonists, siblings Ubu Roy and Beautiful Maria, find themselves short on resources in an interstellar milieu with no mercy for the weak. Black hole prospecting is unlikely to pay off, and indeed it doesn’t. Instead the pair stumble over something far more valuable: a space-dwelling being, the Beloved, who commands biotech far more advanced than anything humans have to offer. Humanity has greater mastery of non-biological technology. It’s a perfect setup for trade…but in the end, who will exploit whom?
The Helix and the Sword by John C. McLoughlin (1983)
In this, the first of McLoughlin’s two standalone novels, humanity’s expansion into space only slightly preceded the collapse of Earth’s ecosystems. Before the collapse, humanity was matter-rich and energy-poor; the new civilization is energy-rich but matter-poor. It is dependent on biotechnology and limited by available asteroid resources in its attempt to support its living ships and space-grown habitats. Now, six thousand years after the fall of Earth, human population has rebounded to its former heights, resulting in a Malthusian crisis. Can another fall of civilization be avoided? Or is humanity doomed to repeat the same stupid mistakes over and over? Protagonist Dyson Tessier takes us into the setting and offers a viewpoint into the events of the plot.
Stoneskin by K. B. Spangler (2017)
The Deep is vast, powerful, and enigmatic. Fortuitously for humans, it appears to find some of us altogether kawaii (cute and adorable). Its human pets are given powers bordering on the magical. Even faster-than-light starships are slow compared to the witches’ ability to coax the Deep into moving cargoes from world to world in an instant. Small wonder that the witches have considerable political power, which they try to wield with doctrinaire neutrality.
The Deep’s patronage freed Tembi from a life of bitter poverty. It did not free her from her memories of childhood. Nor did her new prosperity keep her from asking a question her more privileged classmates don’t like to consider: Is there such a thing as true neutrality? By refusing to take positions in ongoing disputes, are the witches effectively siding with the powerful?
The Starfishers Trilogy by Glen Cook (omnibus published 2017, novels published 1982)
The human Confederation faces off against rivals, the Sangaree and the Ulant. There’s another polity in the mix, the Seiners. They are human, but have not allied themselves with the Confederation. They prefer to remain neutral in the space wars. They can do so because they command fast ships and the services of the vaster Starfish, creatures of energy and force fields who call the interstellar deeps home. The Seiner will not be able to remain neutral for long: they are fated to play a key role in the coming struggle against a menace from the galactic core. The agent asked to forge an alliance between Seiners and the Confederation is Moyshe benRabi, a man torn between the many identities he has adopted over the course of years of espionage.
Binti by Nnedi Okorafor (2015)
Binti Ekeopara Zuzu Dambu Kaipka sneaks away from home in the middle of the night, tempted by a scholarship offer. The university recruiting her is located on another planet, many light years from her native Earth. Her trip will be long; it will be spent within a living starship. It would be a wonderful introduction to the greater universe…were it not for a shocking series of murders on board.
Beings of the vasty deep is one of my favourite tropes. If you know of any other books or stories I should read, or please mention them in comments.
In the words of Wikipedia editor TexasAndroid, prolific book reviewer and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll is of “questionable notability.” His work has appeared in Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews and Young People Read Old SFF (where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis). He is currently a finalist for the 2020 Best Fan Writer Hugo Award and is surprisingly flammable.