An occasional series that is a continuation of my essay anthology, On Being Human: critical looks at books and movies that examine the question of humanity. (On sale now! Buy it today here or download it for free at the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography)
The best science fiction engage readers by posing serious questions. The best adventure stories leave readers on the edge of their seats. Crossover, by Joel Shepherd, the first installment of the Cassandra Kresnov series, does both. The story follows the adventures of Cassandra Kresnov, a war veteran, fugitive, and synthetic person.
The novel begins with Kresnov interviewing at several tech firms on the planet of Callay. Her most recent interview is in the “enormous, decadent capital metropolis of Tanusha.” She has interviews, meets men, and has the occasional one-night stand. From the get go, it noticed two things. The first involved biomechanical modification in Tanusha and its relative normalcy, reminiscent of modifications done in the Culture novels of Iain Banks. The second is Cassandra’s sexual assertiveness.
Following a successful interview and a night on the town, Cassandra is captured and vivisected by forces we later find out are part of the Federal Intelligence Agency. But her captors are discovered, she is rebuilt, and she is placed in military custody. Shackled to a hospital bed and heavily sedated, she has to deal with doctors, politicians, and security personnel. Here’s where political background is important. Cassandra fled her home system, the League, and settled in Callay, a wealthy planet belonging to the Federation. Using very broad strokes, the League has a gung ho scientific adventurism combined with an exploratory spirit unshackled by archaic cultural loyalties. By contrast, the Federation is a more staid and conservative political entity. Here the term conservative means Earth-centric and it still favors an architecture and culture reviving and honoring Earth’s history, cultures, and religions. One of the main tenets of the Federation’s political idea is the outright ban on synthetic humans.
Crossover is a tale of the social contract. At the foundation of every social contract is trust. Cassandra feels frustrated while the Callay leadership feels threatened. Unlike garden variety humans, the General Issue (or G.I.) synthetic human used for military operations is stronger and faster. Cassandra has bones made from the same ceramic material used in spacecraft fuselages. But Cassandra isn’t the standard G.I., her model variant represents a major jump in cognitive ability. Previous models have had a basic intelligence, but nothing to match Cassandra’s non-linear and strategic thinking abilities.
The synthetic humans also have emotions, libidos, and an active sexuality. In one of the many flashbacks, we see Cassandra, the superior officer, having sex with her squad. Besides acting as a release valve for tensions accrued on the battlefield, Cassandra and her squad members see it as a means of unit cohesion, an erotic esprit de corps.
Things become complicated when there is an assassination attempt on the Callayan president. Crossover creates a believable political environment, fractious and messy. Cassandra saves the life of the president. The Federation units that attacked the president also used synthetic humans. The long-simmering tension between Cassandra and her political handlers elevates this story from mere “actioner” to something more. Reading the book reminded me of Caprica and how that series attempted to answer questions of politics, faith, and violence.
The political clash occurs when the Callayan president, Katia Neiland, is unseated in a power grab by Governor Dali, an offworlder. Under normal circumstances, the planetary governor is a ceremonial position and the president sees to day-to-day issues. One sees similar arrangements in Commonwealth nations, where the Prime Minister is head of the government and the Governor-General acts as a representative of the Crown. While Shepherd handles the action scenes with gusto, what most impressed me were the political discussions. President Neiland has to figure out how to integrate Cassandra into Callayan society without it becoming an act of political suicide. The best politicians are those able to ride the tiger of fickle public opinion. The challenge Neiland faces is the anti-synthetic human sentiment that has been the philosophical bedrock of the Federation. Neiland has to massage the opposition not only to accept change, but to accept drastic change to their longstanding social order. This is why science fiction is reflective of the present, not necessarily an accurate measure of the future.
The change Neiland seeks is complicated by the fact that Cassandra helped save her life and has been rewarded with a position with the Callayan military security apparatus. Shepherd creates scenes where politicians hash out the issues and controversies facing them. They read like extended college bull sessions.
This is a roundabout way of getting back to the main question, “What does it mean to be human?” In the case of Cassandra Kresnov, it is becoming integrated into Callayan society and becoming a part of the overarching social contract. The implications are enormous, since President Neiland seeks to grant her personal independence and equality. We learn from Cassandra that the League considered synthetic humans nothing more than disposable soldiers, yet another tool that would allow the League to avoid using biological humans in war. It is the great irony that the society most accepting of scientific progress became the one that exploited the synthetic humans so severely. Another irony is that the most vehemently anti-synthetic human society would have politicians brave enough to experiment with human-synthetic equality. Since Crossover is the first in an ongoing series, the tough questions have not been conclusively answered and the threat of the Federal Intelligence Agency has not been completely neutralized.
Cassandra Kresnov is not human in the purely biological sense. She wasn’t born, she was made. At root, she resembles a very smart machine. But when is a machine not a machine? Cassandra’s appearance mimics that of biological humans, but she is made of different, stronger stuff. Since she is a higher-level model, she also possesses more intelligence. Sentience is a dangerous thing, especially when sentience blossoms into personal self-awareness. When non-humans possess intelligence and awareness, it becomes a natural reaction for society to limit non-human power and access. It is also human nature to label people that are different – different race, different sexual orientation, different religion – as something subhuman and other. (Academia uses the term “othering” for such behavior.) This fear has led to oppressive hierarchies and impressive feats of mental contortion. Crossover’s exciting action scenes don’t overshadow the key question, “What would happen to society if we had to integrate human-like machines that are stronger and more dangerous than us?” Would we relegate them to be our slaves and cannon fodder, or would we make them our equals? It is a question worth pondering.