Night Shade Books, 2012, 373 pages
FAITH is the name humanity has given to the unknown, seemingly invincible alien ship that has begun to harass the newly emergent Commonwealth. 300 years earlier, the same ship destroyed the Sakhran Empire, allowing the Commonwealth to expand its sphere of influence. But now Faith has returned.
THE SHIP is as devastating as before, and its attacks leave some Commonwealth solar systems in chaos. Eventually it reaches Sakhra, now an important Commonwealth possession, and it seems like history is about to repeat itself. But this time, something is waiting: an Outsider, one of the Commonwealth's ultimate warships.
OUTSIDERS are almost as alien as Faith - instruments of the Commonwealth, outside all normal command structures. Slender silver ships, full of functionality: drives and weapons and sentience cores, bionics and electronics, packed to almost dwarf-star density. And crewed by people of unusual abilities, often sociopaths or psychopaths. Outsiders were conceived in back alleys, built and launched in secret, and commissioned without ceremony.
FAITH continues to destroy the Commonwealth's regular spacecraft and planetary defenses. With each new engagement, the Kafkaesque enemy reveals a new set of abilities.
ONE SYSTEM away from Earth, the Outsider ship Charles Manson makes a stand. Commander Foord waits with his crew of miscreants and sociopaths, hoping to accomplish what no other human has been able to do- TO DESTROY FAITH.
The opening paragraph of Faith has quite the "hook":
His pregnancy convulsions dragged him out of unconsciousness. They were stronger and more urgent. Through his delirium he perceived a drip-drip-drip of blood from something which was not even a corpse any more in the impact harness above him. He held his right hand in front of his face, unsheathed and retracted his claws, and made himself count from one thumb across four fingers to the other thumb. The convulsions went away and he slumped back.
That is the sort of writing workshop-approved opener that packs a lot of detail and worldbuilding into a few sentences, and I certainly wanted to know where this was going. Faith is about a duel between two unique, powerful starships; plotwise, there is not much more to it. But the long shooting battle between Faith and the Charles Manson is packed with psychological twists, startling imagery, increasingly strange technologies, and unusual characters.
Many reviews compare this book to Moby Dick. I think the resemblance is superficial, but the author, John Love, is clearly striving for a space opera with gravity. I'd like Faith to have been one of those rare works of truly grand, literary science fiction. I've only seen a few authors pull that off — Ursula Le Guin, Dan Simmons, and a handful of underappreciated authors like Thomas A. Day, with his A Grey Moon Over China or Richard Russo's Ship of Fools.
Faith doesn't quite get there. It shows its roughness as a debut novel, and John Love's writing is full of too many repetitive tics and handwaved things that "just are." Characters who just know things because they do; things they sense with never-defined senses, and inanimate objects and phenomena that take on anthropamorphic properties as pure narrative device.
But the battle between them was complicated and enigmatic. They fought in different languages, and with different weapons, and at times hardly seemed to be fighting each other at all. Their definitions of Battle and Fight and Weapon seemed to correspond only obliquely. And the space between them, by a kind of relativity, was changing as the battle changed. Things were happening to it. In some ways it was no longer space at all.
There is a lot of interesting prose in Faith, and the crew of the Charles Manson, an "Outsider" class vessel existing outside the Commonwealth's normal command structure and packed with its most advanced technology and a multi-species crew of murderers, sadists, and other misfits with a genius for destruction, and her adversary, a mysterious alien vessel built by unknown creators that shows up, wrecks empires, and then disappears for centuries, are certainly among the strangest ships you will ever read about in science fiction.
It's a gripping concept, if not something we haven't seen before — take your misfit psychos who just happen to be the very best at killing people and blowing shit up, and send them against the unbeatable invader to save the world. And over the course of the novel, as the Charles Manson and Faith engage, using tactics and technology that range from unorthodox to inexplicable, I can kind of see Captain Ahab in Commander Foord, raising a fist and saying "From hell's heart I stab at thee!"
The problem is, too much is just told to us — Foord knows what Faith is going to do because he... just knows. Likewise his crew: Thahl, the Sakhran first officer who is Spock to Foord's Kirk, Cyr, the sexy, bloodthirsty weapons officer (who happens to be a serial rapist), Kang, the preternatural pilot who is otherwise an unremarkable nothing, and Smithson, the glistening, acerbic alien engineer, they are all interesting and twisted, and gradually bits and pieces of their true selves emerge, but there is too much intuition and unexplained giftedness that just appears out of nowhere as required by the plot. And Love's writing frequently tips from audacious to pretentious, and it's full of annoying repetitive phrases of the sort that make you start counting occurrences: there are six instances of alarms that "warble politely," and twenty instances of "the drives fountained."
The mystery of Faith — what She is, who built Her, what Her motives are — looms over the entire book, and while there is an explanation and resolution of sorts at the end, I didn't feel it lived up to its promise. The grand, metaphysical finale reminded me a bit of the overworked ending of Disney's The Black Hole.
Verdict: I recommend Faith for fans of space opera that's a little off-beat and trying to be more than it is; if the idea of an obsessive duel between two evenly matched, strange and lethal starships with bizarre and unknowable crews sounds interesting, it's definitely worth your time. The execution fell a bit short for me, but I am willing to read more by John Love. 7/10.
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