The Last Starship – The Forever Watch by David Ramirez

the forever watchThe Forever Watch is a slow burner. It’s much harder science fiction than I normally read. I like my speculative fiction to be broad sweeps and grand ideas. Whilst the novel is certainly not short on grand ideas, it also very detail heavy on the technical aspects of its future technology. This stuff often leaves me cold, and there were a few times that I found myself thinking, ‘yeah, whatever, get on with the story.’

It reminded me of this post by Jo Walton on why some people can’t read science fiction. If you weren’t familiar with decoding this stuff, you’d give up on the Forever Watch before page fifty. From experience, I knew I’d get through it, and I did. Boy, was the pay off worth it!

The novel hinges on applications and implementation of computer code within a complex future world. There are sections that detail this code that I could have read sideways and they wouldn’t have meant any less to me. They arrested my interest in the story, pushing me out, back into the real world. For that the book can only ever be a 4* (out of the seemingly obligatory 5) read, but they didn’t break the novel completely. I could parse the stuff well enough to glean what was important, and so I was always able to work out what was going on.

This uneven reading aside, the book is excellent. Like many of the best science fiction novels, it has a simple premise; a future earth destroys itself, but before it does the last of humanity blasts into space. The Noah, a generation spacecraft is heading towards ‘New Canaan’ which it will reach in 800 years. What’s interesting is what is happening to society on its way.

Set some way into the future, humans and technology have evolved significantly. Sections of society have been specifically genetically engineered to better carry out their jobs, and society is striated according to ability, from lowly maintenance workers to command staff and uber-elite soldiers. Some humans have psionic abilities, such as telekinesis or mind-reading, and the more gifted a person is the higher up the command chain they are. The internet, or something like it, is in continuous use. The net functions using implants in the brain; it’s possible to record (and then access) everything that ever happened at any time on the ship. Total surveillance for the good of the many. You can never forget anything because it’s always possible to play back what happened. More disturbingly, it’s possible to buy other people’s memories. If you’ve had a bad day, you can relax by remembering how it feels to pet a cat you’ve never owned. Other less savoury memories are available.

This is a novel about secrets. If Asimov invented rules about robots, then Ramirez may become famous for his rules about secrets and secrecy. Whilst his society is apparently open, there are inevitably secrets; some for ill and some for the good of humanity, but which are which? The novel reminded me of Hugh Howey’s Wool, though it is a less accessible read. In the Forever Watch, there is a tiered society stuck in a tin can, the can just happens to be hurtling through space. (In truth, Wool took its cue from SF books with sealed spaceships and stuck it in the ground, so this observation is a little back to front.)

As this is a novel about secrets it would be rude to say much more about the plot. There is action, but the books is more a crime investigation feathered with political intrigue. There is layer upon layer of misdirection and misinformation. It’s a cliché, but reading the Forever Watch is like reading an onion; yes, it may even make you cry.

Characterisation is strong. An excellent female lead, with strong support from a colourful and varied cast. This is a hard scifi, as I said, a little too dense for me sometimes, but very well done. There are lots of interesting questions about society, technology and the use of information. Also the perils of transparency and the border between humanity and machine.  The world building is excellent and the plot construction intricate, with each reveal taking the breath away. The denouement is stunning and left me reeling.

The Forever Watch is high calibre storytelling. Due to its heavy technical content, I cannot recommend it unreservedly, but if you are even a semi regular reader of science fiction, I think you’ll find much to enjoy. An excellent speculation on the evolution of technology, society and the entire human race.

Many Thanks for the team at Bookbridgr for sending me a copy of this book. 

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