The novel “Binary System” by Eric Brown was published for the first time in 2017. It’s the fix-up of two previously published novellas.
Cordelia “Delia” Kemp is part of the crew of the starship “The Pride of Amsterdam” when a catastrophic failure causes its destruction. Delia is lucky to to reach a shuttle but it’s thrown into the wormhole formed to bring the starship to its destination. Instead, the failure opened it to an unknown destination, which turns out to be about 10,000 light years from Earth.
In the area of space where Delia ended up there’s a planet that is barely habitable but when it reaches its orbit, her shuttle is shot down. Delia discovers that the planet, called Valinda, is inhabited by a hostile species that conquered it long before. The sentient natives are used as slaves and, when Delia’s neural implant allows her to communicate with them, she manages to escape. Understanding the planet’s recent history is crucial for her future.
Eric Brown has often written stories in the style of classic science fiction, adventures among the stars and on exotic planets inhabited by alien species. In “Binary System” an accident to a starship brings a castaway to a planet inhabited by three sentient species of which two are native, the ape-like Fahran and the giant-crab-looking Vo, and the third came from space, the insectoid Skelt.
The environment on the planet Valinda makes Delia’s survival difficult due to the consequences of its highly elliptical orbit. Its year lasts about ten Earth years of which about one Earth year is spent close to its star, at a distance that reaches a minimum of half that of Earth from the Sun, and the rest of the local year at distances from its star that reaches a maximum of about ten times that of Earth from the Sun. That orbit determines a considerable seasonal variability with nine Earth years of almost always very intense cold and one Earth year of heat,again almost always very intense.
Delia shipwrecked on Valinda towards the end of winter, when she can survive on the planet with clothing suitable for the Earth’s poles. The Skelt prove immediately hostile by capturing her and she manages to avoid being killed only by promising to reveal the secrets of human technology. From a slave Fahran she learns that the Skelt have lost most of their technology over the many local years spent on the planet.
On these foundations, Eric Brown develops a planetary adventure in which Delia thinks she has no hope of leaving the planet Valinda nor of communicating with humans, several thousand light-years away, and decides to use her resources to help Fahran and Vo to break free from the Skelt yoke. To help her there’s the artificial intelligence contained in her neural implant.
In “Binary System” there’s limited room for insights about characters and alien species because the adventurous element is the main one. The information Eric Brown provides about the sentient species that live on the planet Valinda is functional to that adventure, concerning their physical characteristics and their technology, culture and religion. This also applies to the scenarios of the planet, therefore the author doesn’t clarify what allowed the development of such an ecology that two sentient species emerged despite the very harsh environmental conditions.
As a protagonist, Delia is a bit dull and quite passive. Sometimes it seems that she can do nothing without consulting first with artificial intelligence in her head. That’s normal when she has to rely on the neural implant’s simultaneous translation and when she needs information outside her competence but in some cases it seems too much, particularly in the initial part where she sometimes even gets sedated.
When not talking to the implant, Delia thinks about the xenobiologist Tim Green, with whom she had started a relationship. The loss of a close person is a narrative trick often used because it’s supposed to make you sympathize with a character, but personally I find it a cliché that has the opposite effect on me. Luckily, after the initial part he thinks much less about Tim and more about his situation.
For its characteristics, “Binary System” gave me mixed feelings. Its strength is in the adventurous part with a sense-of-wonder in the style of classic science fiction with a fast pace. However, it’s not hard science fiction and has no particular developments in the story elements that are not essential to the plot. For these reasons I recommend it to anyone looking to read something enjoyable and without complications.