Published by Pyr
Author Web site: http://www.joelshepherd.com
Joel Shepherd’s debut novel, Crossover, is firmly entrenched in a growing subset of science fiction – that of the SF-Femme-Fatale page-turner, to borrow a term from the back-cover blurb on the book. With this novel, Shepherd, and Kresnov, joins the ranks of writers like Karen Traviss, Marienne de Pierres, and Elizabeth Bear. Shepherd’s protagonist, Cassandra Kresnov, is a defective operative from the League, looking to eschew her former country/employer. After being nearly killed by her country, she emigrates to its enemy, the Federation; specifically, the nation-state of Tanusha on the planet Callay. With a Russian-sounding name, it might be easy to draw parallels between Kresnov and communists who defected in the Cold War. Her dissatisfaction, to put it subtly, can easily draw comparisons to how many Americans feel about their own government in 2006. So, on more than one level, the futuristic setting has a good deal of resonance today. However, Kresnov differs in one major fashion – she is not human. As GI, she is a synthetic human, or artificial intelligence. This point is the core of the novel, and throughout Shepherd brings to light a wide range of arguments in the debate – is an artificial intelligence a person? Can they have humanity?
This argument; what it means to be human, is at the heart of science fiction. How can humanity be judged and measured in a future where we have evolved and modified ourselves, and where humans can create beings virtually indistinguishable from themselves? As far back as Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and more recent novels like John Scalzi’s recent novel, The Ghost Brigades, writers have been tackling this issue. Throughout the novel, Kresnov encounters different obstacles, both physical and psychological, on her path to discovering who she is. Kresnov’s past as an ultimate killing machine is in stark contrast to the thoughtful, and insightful conversations she carries on about what it means to be human. A lot of the story is a balancing act, and nowhere is this more evident than Kresnov’s conversations with her new colleagues in the Federation, specifically a woman named Vanessa.
The other balancing act Shepherd dances throughout the entire novel is between the thoughtful dialogue (both external and inner) and the slam-bang action sequences, the assassination attempt or the various skirmishes throughout the book. In many ways Crossover is a very visceral book, evoking strong and powerful thoughts and emotions, both of which Kresnov inspires in those who surround her. The platoon/troop she led during her years in the League had an unwavering loyalty to her, moreso than their loyalty to the League itself. A woman falls for Kresnov during her tenure in the Federation. The troop she falls in with during her indoctrination into the Federation soon come to trust her implicitly and the highest ranking government official puts her life in Kresnov’s hands. Here Shepherd does something subtle, these characters don’t immediately trust Kresnov. Rather, they view her with fear and awe and soon realize that despite literally being a killing machine, Kresnov is very human. As they come to know her beyond their preconceived notions (i.e. an out-and-out killing machine) these characters accept her.
The future in which Kresnov lives resembles our world, but has enough of the cool science-fictiony stuff to make it a possible extrapolation of our own. In addition to the artificial humans, humanity has expanded far beyond Earth and flying cars are the mode of transport on Callay. While Callay is far from Earth, it resembles a plausible future enough that Shepherd is able to play with politics that mirrors much of today’s world. It is a familiar trick in the genre, but Shepherd plays it to the fullest, between an assassination attempt, the loss of trust in the government you thought you knew, and a political coup, such events could easily happen in the “real” world.
What makes Crossover stand out is how plausibly and realistically Shepherd draws his characters. The dialogue between Kresnov and her new colleagues propel the narrative and plot very well. Their thought processes and reactions occur very logically and are on equal standing with the plot/action elements of the story.
Crossover is a satisfying, engaging, and thought-provoking read from another great new voice from Pyr. The good thing is that Crossover is the first of three books.
© 2006 Rob H. Bedford