The Orphaned Worlds by Michael Cobley

Published by Orbit October 2012          
ISBN 978-0-316-21401-8
Mass Market Paperback, 614 Pages
Review copy courtesy of the publisher    

Humanity realized it was not extinct, though that may not be the most promising of news to the people of Darien. They’ve learned the universe is hostile and humanity is just one civilized society, other peoples wish to exploit Darien for all they can. However, Darien is not the only human-inhabited world, seed ships sent out many years ago have allowed for the growth and spread of humanity on two worlds, while Earth managed to recover from the devastating alien attack which caused the three seed ships (Hyperion, Tenebrosa, and Forrestal) to be sent out in the hopes of saving humanity as a race. When I read Seeds of Earth earlier in 2012, I enjoyed it a great deal, thinking that it was a prime example of Space Opera which laid great foundation for this series.

With the universe a-flutter about the discoveries on Darien of potential ancient races and the reuniting of two of humanity’s lost colonies, Cobley paints his story on a very wide canvas and delves further into the past of Darien and the ancient races who may or may not still have their fingers in affairs. While Seeds of Earth focused primarily on the planet Darien and the inhabitants from the seed ship Hyperion and a bit of a focus on the planet of Pyre, populated by of the seed ship Tenebrosa, as well as the final seed ship Forrestal on the planet Tygra. 

While Greg and Chel, the transformed Uvovo from the first novel, still feature quite prominently here in The Orphaned Worlds, Kao Chih steps more into the forefront as a leading character, as do Greg’s Uncle Theo, the transformed Catriona, and the entity known as Legion, and the prisoner Julia.

One of the strongest elements, I thought, of Cobley’s mythology/milieu was the symbiotic relationship between the Uvovo and the vast forest of Segrana on Darien. This has more of a spiritual, fantastical ambiance which is not too dissimilar to the Na’vi and Pandora in James Cameron’s Avatar, especially in the character of Catriona who has an even deeper connection to Segrana. I’d also point to some of the sequences set in the Void in Peter F. Hamilton’s of his Void Trilogy, if not for the direct correlation but rather the strong fantastic elements in an otherwise science fictional story. No doubt Cobley’s affection for and writer of a few fantasy novels prior to Humanity’s Fire can be seen with the Uvovo. 

One of the smaller plot strands, at least thus far, is that of Robert Horst, an ambassador from Earth and the artificial intelligence that has taken the form of his daughter.  Horst is a tragic and sympathetic character at times, at others desperate to change the past. These sequences show something larger at play than any of the characters, especially Robert himself, could imagine.  What I also found intriguing was how Robert’s ‘daughter’ aged as quickly as she did, not remaining at a static age as one would expect a simulated intelligence based on one’s memories to be. Here, I thought, Cobley’s playing with the A.I. trope of SF handled very well and differently than I’d previously seen.

However, I also thought some pacing problems in the third quarter of the first novel held it back from being superb rather than Very Good.  Unfortunately, some of those pacing problems crept into The Orphaned Worlds. Balancing epic and intimate with brisk pace is a difficult challenge for any writer.  I wouldn’t say Cobley completely dropped the ball in this instance, but the problems grew here in the second volume as the net of the story was cast even wider. While I understand the necessity of focusing on the large cast of characters, I felt some tightening would have helped the pace. Not to say that any of these characters should have been removed, just toned down a bit.  

Cobley still has a compelling story to tell with Humanity’s Fire and there is more than enough to keep me continuing with the series through the final volume, The Ascendant Stars. I just hope the final volume has a little more focus and, for lack of a better word, organization. If it does and holds out on the promise of Seeds of Earth, then Humanity’s Fire has the chance to be exactly what Iain M. Banks says of it on the cover “Proper Galaxy-Spanning Space Opera” or even something more than that.


© 2012 Rob H. Bedford

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