Liz Bourke Reviews Rubicon by J.S. Dewes
Rubicon, J.S. Dewes (Tor 978-1-25085-123-9, $19.99, tp) March 2023.
Rubicon, J.S. Dewes’s third published novel after The Last Watch and The Exiled Fleet, offers a fresh setting and different approach to military-flavoured space opera than Dewes’ previous work.
Specialist Adrienne Valero has died 96 times since her enlistment. Every time, she’s resurrected into a fresh ‘‘husk’’ and redeployed to the front lines of her people’s struggle against the mechanical hivemind, the Mechans, that’s keeping them penned in a dying star system, and she wants nothing more than for it to stop. Even if that means dying for good.
After her latest traumatic resurrection, she’s unexpectedly reassigned to a special forces unit – one where people don’t get killed with nearly such frequency – promoted to sergeant, and provided with cutting-edge military hardware in order to carry out her new missions. That hardware includes a virtual intelligence connected to her brain, the titular Rubicon. But Adrienne’s Rubicon is different, as she discovers in the middle of a mission. It’s more capable and more advanced than her comrades’ ones: it’s a prototype AI, and she’s its first field test. Recruited by a driven research-and-development major, Maj. West, to aid his secretive initiative to end the war with the Mechans by any means necessary, Adrienne finds that any means necessary may entail something both more dangerous and more horrifying than she’d ever considered possible. And she’s the only one in a position to do anything about it.
According to her bio, Dewes’ dayjob is as a videogame writer, and Rubicon definitely displays some cross-pollination from videogame narrative. I don’t say this dismissively: I do enjoy a good, well-characterised space-shooter. But there’s a great deal of commonality in the narrative structure of modern triple-A shooter or adventure games. Rubicon shares elements of this structure. I’m going to lay them out, because having noticed how closely Rubicon mirrors the beats of, say, a Mass Effect game (still my go-to example, after all these years, though it’d also fit a number of others), I think a reader’s enjoyment of this novel is going to hinge on how much they appreciate the similarities to the tightly mission-focused rush of a game.
The novel opens with an introductory mission. Dewes introduces us rapidly and effectively to Adrienne, her context, and how we should expect the world to work. Then there’s a rapid pivot to plot, where we meet Adrienne’s new teammates and some other significant characters, a mission, an action sequence in which Adrienne finds she’s activated a Mysterious Power (her AI), some non-mission time where she gets recruited for dangerous secrets, missions with character interludes in between, a mission with a boss-fight followed by the consummation of a romantic relationship, some Terrible Revelations(tm), then a climatic set of fight sequences and an epilogue.
I can’t stop making the comparison to a videogame. Rubicon practically begs that comparison in its structure, its characters, its conflicts and its concerns. The Mechan enemy have no individuality and no empathy, and their ultimate goals are incomprehensible. They’re an artificial hivemind. No one feels conflict or guilt over killing them, because negotiation is apparently impossible. This isn’t an uncommon setup in military science fiction – the work of Marko Kloos comes immediately to mind, as does Starship Troopers and other older examples – but it’s a strong paradigm in SF shooter videogames (Mass Effect’s geth and Reapers, the Gears of War franchise, even the Halo franchise to a degree). Rubicon-the-AI and the goals of Maj. West exist in direct parallel to the Mechans, and the logic of a videogame means the question of Can this end up turning humans into the Mechans instead of defeating them? (which occurred to this reader as soon as I spotted a driven secretive genius talking about ‘‘any means necessary’’) is answered in the affirmative.
Adrienne is an interestingly broken main character. The novel zips along nicely, and as military-flavoured science fiction goes, it’s astonishingly good. (I am, alas, astonished by milSF that avoids the pitfalls of misogyny and US-style colonial conservative politics. Rubicon not only clears that bar but leaps above it, with strong prose and striking atmosphere also to its credit.) The epilogue casts the whole novel in a light much closer to horror than the tone up until this point led me to expect, which makes Rubicon as a whole feel strangely more satisfactory than it otherwise would have. I don’t like horror. But if the novel had failed to reckon with the horror inherent in its premises, it would have succeeded far less well.
Rubicon is fast and compelling, but if you prefer your military science fiction with less of a debt to videogames, it mightn’t work for you. On the other hand, if you do want a novel that’s leaning hard into Mass Effect or GEARS 5, Rubicon’s a hell of a fun ride.
Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, is out now from Aqueduct Press. Find her at her blog, her Patreon, or Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign.
This review and more like it in the April 2023 issue of Locus.
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