Emissaries from the Dead hits a lot of sweet spots for me. First, of course, there’s AI. Second, it’s a mystery novel. Third, the protagonist is essentially a government agent with diplomatic immunity (though not in this case). Fourth, she’s messed up but not too messed up. The resulting cocktail is a heady mix indeed. Although I found it slow going at first, Emissaries from the Dead quickly grew on me; by the end, Adam-Troy Castro had persuaded me this is a series with great potential.
Love AI. Can’t get enough of it. I know it’s been done to death and is kind of boring the Singularity is so 2000s … but I can’t help it. AI remains, for me, one of the most intriguing parts of our posthuman futures. In Emissaries of the Dead, the AIsource is an all-knowing, all-seeing conglomeration of software that has transcended the organic species who created it. Its motivations are shrouded in mystery, and it no doubt has the capability of wiping out all organic life should it choose. So Andrea Cort is treading on dangerous ground in One One One, especially because all evidence points to the AIsource as the murderer(s). Castro draws on all the wealth of decades of fiction about AI and adds an excellent political dimension that makes the mystery much stronger.
Mystery was the first genre that really grabbed me as a reader. My first novels were Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, from which I graduated on to Conan Doyle and Christie. I’m more of a science fiction geek now, of course, so I love it when those two genres come together. Emissaries of the Dead starts as a murder mystery—double homicide—but turns into more of a political thriller. Castro knows how to write action scenes and keep the suspense going. That being said, sometimes the novel gets bogged down in the dialogue, particularly during Andrea’s audiences with the AIsource. Sometimes it seems like Castro is so eager to show off Andrea’s train of reasoning, and in this way, he takes exposition to the extreme.
Andrea is not some independent private investigator stumbling into the habitat of One One One. She’s a Judge Advocate for the Diplomatic Corps. I’m fascinated by stories that have mercenaries or other semi-autonomous individuals with great authority parachuted onto planets to settle disputes, kick ass, and take names. It hearkens back to the sheriffs of the Wild West, but it also rings true to how society would function if we spread out among the stars. And it’s clear, from the detail into which Castro goes, that he has thought out the way the Diplomatic Corps functions. The time debt indenturement that its employees undergo is just uncomfortable enough to hint that, in this future, humanity is far from the enlightened federation of planets we might hope it becomes. Andrea’s own past notwithstanding, it seems like we continue to muck around and eke out an existence as best we can.
Indeed, I kind of wish Castro had dropped a few more bombshell big ideas into this story. We’ve got the Diplomatic Corps, the AISource (and their connection to Andrea’s past, which I won’t reveal), the cylinked Porrinyards, and of course the habitat of One One One itself. There are more tangential technologies—the faster-than-light travel and communication and stasis that brings Andrea to One One One in the first place. For the most part, though, this is a locked room murder mystery—just replace the room with an upside down artificial ecosystem. Castro tickles us with a lot of interesting descriptions and hints at bigger ideas, but that’s all they are—hints.
So I return to the characters to find solace in them. Most of them—even the Porrinyards—are unremarkable. They are stock characters, types to fit into moulds to be broken later in the book. Andrea is really the only exception—and I like Andrea. I like that Castro sets up her past from the beginning, showing us the demons that haunt her and taunt her and label her “Monster”. He gives us a good reason for her being so special and unique and capable of doing what she does—something many authors aren’t easily able to do with their protagonists. Yet even with all her issues, Andrea manages to change and grow over the course of the story. She doesn’t stay angry or insular—she gets answers, asks new questions, and makes decisions. I predicted her change of circumstances fairly easily—but I’m happy I was right, because I think it’s an intriguing start to this series.
This book didn’t runaway with my heart, but I definitely want to read more. I want to see how Andrea’s relationship with the AIsource and its problems evolves. I want to see more of this galaxy that Castro has created. Emissaries from the Dead is an OK mystery and a fine standalone novel, but it’s an even better introduction to Andrea Cort.