In the opening of her debut novel Barbary Station, R.E. Stearns drops her readers into the midst of a thrilling heist of a colonial spaceship traveling through the solar system — and that’s just the first chapter. What follows is a fantastic, lightning-fast space opera that serves as both a fantastic thriller with a cast of well-drawn characters, and a wonderful sandbox of a world that I can’t wait to revisit over and over again.
A couple of centuries from now, humanity has colonized the solar system, scattering colonies across moons, asteroids, and planets. Humanity fought a devastating interplanetary war that’s left behind refugees across the solar system, as well as rogue mercenary and pirate crews preying on ships owned by the system’s massive corporations. One of these crews is led by the charismatic Captain Sloane, who has taken up residence in an abandoned base of operations known as Barbary Station.
Adda and Iridian are each recent engineering graduates who aren’t thrilled with the prospect of signing on with a major interstellar corporation or the debt that they’ve racked up getting their degrees. So when Adda’s brother Pel invites them to join the pirates, they jump at the chance, stealing a ship as a sort of audition to land a place on the crew.
However, when they arrive, they find that Pel wasn’t entirely forthcoming about their living situation. Barbary Station, abandoned for years, is falling apart. Sloane’s crew is trapped in makeshift housing on the station’s surface, where they face the threat of leaks and radiation poisoning. A group of refugees from a recent civil war eke out a meager existence in the station’s hangars, living off of whatever they can steal from passing ships. But there’s a greater danger: almost everyone aboard is at the mercy of AegiSKADA, the station’s security AI — which is doing everything it can to kill the pirates.
Sloane’s crew, along with a team of hired mercenaries called the ZV Group, are stuck: they can’t enter the station, or escape into space, without tripping AegiSKADA’s defense systems. Adda and Iridian were towed onto the station as space junk, and if they want to join the crew, they have to get the AI off Sloane’s back, until the crew can escape to their base in the asteroid belt.
Fortunately, Adda and Iridian are uniquely suited for the task. Adda’s specialty is in software and AI, and she begins to figure out what’s driving the station. Iridian has the skills to secure their surroundings and get inside, so she can dismantle the AI at its core.
Fans of James S.A. Corey’s Expanse series will find much to like here, as Iridian and Adda contend with Sloane’s rag-tag crew and its political factions, which are still a sore point for military veterans like Iridian. But the book also evokes the cold tension of films like Gravity, where you’re constantly reminded that space can kill you in seconds. There are plenty of other dangers, too — station leaks, 3D-printed drones, disgruntled mercenaries, and space junk, to name a few.
AegiSKADA is a compelling villain, printing up defensive robots and opening hangar doors to try and kill off the intruders. At first, it’s cold and calculating, simply following protocol to wipe out the crew. But soon, it starts acting a bit too smart. It targets Adda when it realizes that she’s an immediate threat, and manufactures a plague to infect her and her compatriots. Eventually, it seems as though it’s on the cusp of reaching sentience, a prospect that terrifies Iridian and thrills Adda.
But the book’s best element is the romantic relationship between Adda and Iridian, a believable and downright ordinary couple who are fiercely devoted to one another. And Stearns resists the urge to use their relationship as a plot crutch. Fending off a rogue and homicidal AI would prove to be stressful on any couple, but instead of melodramatically crumbling, their relationship only gets stronger through this trial-by-fire. The pair rely on one another for moral support and sanity, which feels far more realistic and satisfying than interpersonal conflict would.
Ultimately, Barbary Station is a hell of a debut novel: a brilliant shot out of the gate with a fully-realized world that I would have only expected from an author well into their career. And fortunately, Stearns’ followup novel, Mutiny at Vesta, is due out next year.
Photography by Andrew Liptak / The Verge