Review: Superluminal by Vonda N. McIntyre

If you enjoy science fiction and fantasy, there are many thought-provoking essays on I recently read “The 1983 Book Ian McEwan (and Everyone Else Who Craves Thoughtful SciFi) Should Be Reading”. I was convinced! I had to read “Superluminal” by Vonda McIntyre.

After a few pages, I was sure I’d read this before. It felt familiar but I have no memory of it. It’s possible I read it in the 1980s it’s the sort of book that I would look for.

I struggled a bit with this book I have to admit. After reading the TOR article I was expecting to get swept away by story populated by fascinating characters but I did not. I can see why another review called it “bland” - I think that’s unfair by the way, but I can understand it.

Let’s start with the three main characters. Laenea is a pilot, she has willingly become a cyborg in order to gain the ability to pilot interstellar vessels through a higher-dimensional space - an experience fatal to normal humans unless they are sedated. All we really understand about Laenea is her drive to become a pilot, to me, she appears a fairly self-interested and unsympathetic character.

Then there is Rada Dracul, from the colony world Twilight. It was never clear to me whether his name and that of the planet was deliberately meant to invoke thoughts of vampires. I’m, obviously, not referring to the sparkly vampires of the Twilight saga here I just mean vampires and the association with darkness. Rada Dracul is the only survivor of a plague that decimated his planet and has deep feelings of survivor’s guilt.

Finally, there is Orca, a third-generation “diver”, genetically engineered to survive in the ocean and member of a society that is drifting away from mainstream humanity. Orca is torn between her need to remain close to her family of divers but also to travel between planets and, perhaps, become a pilot herself. Of all the main characters she comes across as the most sympathetic: she is kind, brave and cares for others and her struggle to bridge two-worlds evokes sympathy.

Sadly, with the exception of Orca, the characters all feel somewhat two dimensional and I felt like I was reading one of the so-called “golden age” books of science fiction (BTW “golden age” is really a misnomer, I might have enjoyed some of those books when I was 10 but compared to modern science fiction they really haven’t aged well).

I also had issues with the world building. It was never made clear why simply replacing the heart with a mechanical one was sufficient for making one a pilot. It was hinted at that there were other concerns but why was this the sole physical change required? Why did this change make pilots physically uncomfortable around normal humans? There are hints that spending time in “transit” space changes people but still, I found the whole description of pilots very unconvincing.

The description of Orca’s experience as a diver was handled better. We don’t really get any insight into diver society, but we do hear that it’s tightly related to the whales and that the divers have learned “true speech” which makes it possible to communicate concepts that are impossible to do in human speech. Orca’s intuition that “true speech” would allow her to communicate the experience of transit (which pilots have failed to do) is one of the reasons she feels drawn to becoming a pilot.

The second half of the book reads better than the first half and I did end up enjoying it. I think there are some interesting ideas here that are worth further exploration. I’m reminded of books I’ve read where cetaceans acted as pilots that could fit in with this world. That said, books such as “The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet” by Becky Chambers, “Ancillary Justice” by Ann Leckie and “House of Suns” by Alastair Reynolds do a far better job of characterisation, world-building and storytelling and I would not hesitate to recommend those three for your consideration.