Engaging SF Adventure: Engines of Oblivion by Karen Osborne

Karen Osborne’s debut science fiction novel, Architects of Memory, came out in September last year. The pandemic has done a number on my ability to recall detail, so only impressions remain: I enjoyed it, I remember, even if it had a few too many sudden revelations, betrayals, and double-/triple-crosses for me to entirely follow.

Engines of Oblivion is a direct sequel to Architects of Memory, albeit from a different point of view.

[Spoilers for Architects of Memory follow.]

Where Architects of Memory hewed close to the perspective of Ashlan Jackson, dying of an incurable illness that—it transpired—was turning her into a weapon that many of the corporate polities that rule over the human-occupied galaxy would do nearly anything to possess, Engines of Oblivion stars Ashlan’s former crewmate Natalie Chan. It opens some months after the conclusion of Architects of Memory, when Ashlan escaped (in a complicated, contingent, doomed fashion) from her corporate indenture contract, along with her lover, Kate Keller. Natalie has escaped from corporate indenture in a different fashion: now a citizen of the Aurora corporation, she has at least some rights and privileges.

Even if she’s still only a tool in the eyes of her corporate masters.

Natalie is also suffering from the aftereffects of exposure to the weapon or device that was deployed at the end of Architects of Memory. The Heart, a device of the alien Vai, shattered Natalie’s memory. Her sense of herself as a person—her continuity of experience—is held together with a piece of proprietary tech made by Aurora. This tech, the memoria, is what lets Natalie function: it allows her to remember parts of her experiences. But large chunks are missing. Apart from this, though, Natalie has everything she ever thought she wanted: citizenship, security, a challenging job, a tolerable lover in the person of Emerson Ward—

But then she’s made party to mass murder. Genocide. And still reeling from this experience, she’s threatened into going on a mission to retrieve Ashlan and the Heart for Aurora—alongside Reva Sharma, a doctor she despises and who she thought was dead. That mission has unexpected consequences, as Natalie has her worldview upended a couple of times, finds her old friends on the verge of death, and learns more about the very alien Vai than she ever thought possible.

The Vai aren’t individuals the way that humans are. The Vai are more like networked intelligences, downloaded into forms as collectivities. And when Natalie returns from her mission, she discovers that this is the vision for the future that Aurora’s CEO has for humanity: a future that will sever the minds of most people from their bodies, turning their bodies into puppetable tools, while destroying the Vai and taking everything they had. The haves will have more: the have nots won’t even have the space inside their own heads.

Natalie’s stubborn enough, ornery enough, and pissed off enough to fight. And if the rules don’t let her win, she’ll rewrite the rules.

I enjoyed Engines of Oblivion less than I wanted to. In part, that’s because my ability to appreciate stories set in crapsack worlds where narcissistic CEOs treat individual humans as fungible and disposable units is currently rather low. (I’m presently a bit more inclined to the escapist vein.) And in part, it’s because any ending that relies on death of the body and continuation of consciousness in another form for satisfaction and resolution on a personal level has… a high bar to clear, for me. I’m not really on Team Ghosts in the Machine, and Engines of Oblivion’s ending relies a little too heavily on it—and a certain amount of social-technological handwavium—in order to conclude on an optimistic note.

Yet Engines of Oblivion has other things to recommend it. Osborne has a deft touch with action and pacing—Engines of Oblivion rattles along at a fairly hectic clip, with Natalie ricocheting from one problem right into the next, even bigger problem—and a decent hand with characterisation and voice. Natalie’s a compelling, damaged individual, whose ambitions and ethics are relatable even as her larger-than-life problems spiral out of control. An engaging science fiction adventure. I’m glad I read it, and I look forward to reading more of Osborne’s work.

Engines of Oblivion is available from Tor Books.

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 2018 Hugo Award in Best Related Work. She was a finalist for the inaugural 2020 Ignyte Critic Award, and has also been a finalist for the BSFA nonfiction award. Find her on Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council, the Transgender Equality Network Ireland, and the Abortion Rights Campaign.

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