The Stark Divide by J. Scott Coatsworth

The Stark Divide by J. Scott CoatsworthBook one of the science fiction series Liminal Sky introduces a fascinating world with a glimpse of ways science can work with nature to broaden our world. It reminds me of Arthur C. Clarke’s Rama with one critical difference: human ingenuity creates this world ship with the assistance of AI ship-minds. The artificial intelligence gained by complex, mature ship-minds is not explained, or even really explored, but rather appears as an outgrowth humans did not intend nor do they understand. I like this take even if, in gaining sapience, the AIs develop more human characteristics and flaws than I consider plausible. It certainly works within the story.

The book is in three separate parts, strung along the same timeline and providing a beginning, middle, and end to this portion of a complex tale. Each is self-contained while building on what came before and with people existing or directly tied to those in the previous sections. It makes reviewing a little harder because I don’t want to spoil anything and so can’t even use character names. I can say the first and last are more action adventure with a touch of philosophy while the second is more philosophy and psychology with a touch of action. These styles are relevant to the focus of each section and so equally compelling.

It took me a little to get into the book because of some rough passages and the isolated introduction of all four main characters, including the AI. Once they started interacting, though, I came to know them better and make my own bonds with them. In the latter sections, the characters are introduced more naturally.

Characters are one of this author’s strengths. The main characters are distinct and compelling, coming into the story with histories relevant to what happens, but also elements there only to give depth to the idea of each person. Having said the last, I was surprised to realize the early female characters, whether human or AI, behaved in what appeared to be stereotypical ways. The good news is when the issues introduced in the first part come together, it’s a nuanced, tear-inducing scene that transforms what touches on biased presentations into personal choices with consequences once again. My response to that scene and others shows, even with my reservations, I was engaged with all the characters. I will say since my favorite character is female, the problem I had with the early portrayals clearly did not extend through the whole book. It was amusing, though, to have a male character in the second part vocalize the very bias I’d identified. So for those who see the same markers I did, I counsel patience. The journey is worth it.

As far as the technical aspects, I found the advances both plausible and well thought out. The AIs, despite developing too much humanity at times, had their own natures. I loved the various ways humans interfaced with the AIs and my favorite springs from the consequences of an illegal mod. The creative solutions, both tech and non-tech, to the various problems were fun to see being worked out even in those times when I’d already made the leap before the characters.

The third piece is something I’ve touched on with the AI, but there is a strong element of philosophy and religion. Personhood, and whether human beliefs are broad enough to encompass divinity, are explored among other questions. This type of pondering is an interest of mine, and I enjoyed these characters’ thoughts. I sometimes found the characters a bit slow to recognize consequences or to explain things in such a way that would clear up some conflicts. However, I’ve already stated this as my interest so I’m probably more practiced than most, especially those, like the characters, who focused their careers on the more tangible aspects of life. It made me appreciate the characters more when they matured as the story developed.

The book covers several big questions including those of a more tangible nature. This future Earth is the path we are currently on with climate change, political warmongering, and resource depletion all playing a role. As much as I want to say more about this aspect, I cannot without revealing parts from the later story. I’ll say only that there is a danger in tackling these kinds of issues without giving them enough space as the impressions left might be other than intended. I already have the next book in my queue and suspect some of the clarity I wanted will be dealt with there as the seeds of conflicts to come have already been sown.

On a pure writing standpoint, the book does a good job of setting up what is to come. Sometimes, the red herrings are so complete that the real answer takes a moment to sink in despite also being plausible. The map of this world, both politically and physically, is much changed from ours, information introduced in the narrative when relevant rather than set up ahead of time. The blend of characters from many backgrounds and representing different cultures, sexualities, and genders was refreshing while I appreciated how the viewpoints informed the reader about shifted norms rather than pointing them out through info dumps.

This is a complex, intriguing mix of science, psychology, and philosophy. The Stark Divide caught and held my attention through both the “gee whiz” factor and characters who faced real internal and external challenges. It’s a worthwhile read for science fiction fans whether you’re in it for the advancements, people struggles, or a glimpse at what our future might hold. It contains more than one nail-biting crisis with very real consequences to appease the adrenaline junkie in all of us.

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