Travel Documents 52: The Liminal Sky Series


Liminal Sky

J. Scott Coatsworth
Genre: far-future, noble-bright, adventure

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The Dust Cover Copy

The Earth is in a state of collapse, with wars breaking out over resources and an environment pushed to the edge by human greed.

 

Three living generation ships have been built with a combination of genetic mastery, artificial intelligence, technology, and raw materials harvested from the asteroid belt. This is the story of one of them—43 Ariadne, or Forever, as her inhabitants call her—a living world that carries the remaining hopes of humanity, and the three generations of scientists, engineers, and explorers working to colonize her.

 

From her humble beginnings as a seedling saved from disaster to the start of her journey across the void of space toward a new home for the human race, The Stark Divide tells the tales of the world, the people who made her, and the few who will become something altogether beyond human.

 

Humankind has just taken its first step toward the stars.

The Deets

The Scene

Worldbuilding

I’ve reviewed Coatsworth’s works in the past, and he’s pulled it off yet again, building a world that normalizes itself through experience until nothing could be more familiar than the land stretching away over your head to become your sky inside a generation ship holding humanity’s future, and a bit too much of its past.

The exploration of how humanity will go forward as we try–with mixed results– to shake the dust and sin from our boots and embark in our first great journey across the shoreless sea of the cosmos is beautifully grounded in biology, solidly researched futurism, extrapolations of plausible technology and well-crafted scenarios. It’s no utopia; as these books pointedly remind us, a society of perfect efficiency and perfect singularity of purpose is no longer a human society. But the generation ship christened Forever does offer us a better way to live, a hopeful way. It shows us a closed ecology wherein all waste is recycled into components for new growth. Where everyone will get a roof over their head, a full belly, and a place to do good work in the community. A place that has learned that the cost of discarding anyone is too high.

There will, of course, be conflicts between humans, and Coatsworth explores this deftly and with clear eyes. People get scared. They get angry. That’s part of being human.

But people also care. People protect one another. People want to be better. And that is the arc Coatsworth sees our natures arcing in the direction of: our better angels, Hope and Solidarity.

There’s a deep exploration of what makes life sentient and what makes it sacred throughout the arc of this work. I won’t give too many spoilers, but the people of the Forever will have to come to terms again and again with how they’ll treat the Other in their midst. There will be synthetic intellegences who help their world to exist among them. Are they people? Are they fancy bio-engineering mixed with code and nothing more? Do they have human dignity and rights, or not?
And within humanity, there will be the entire rainbow of orientations, genders and identities. There will be refugees from Earth who arrive on barely-spaceworthy vessels, barely in the nick of time and barely alive. There will be children born with the strange ability to intersect their consciousness with the code of the ship itself.

Are they human? Who gets to decide?

This new society will have to decide what makes a person worthy in the eyes of its folk. It won’t be easy. But with his trademark unflinching compassion, first Coatsworth presents these issues to his readers. Then he shows us how we can choose paths that will lead us into a brighter future.

The Crowd

Characterization

Coatsworth is one of the few authors who can pull off the epic space opera feat of making us care for multiple generations of characters in a multi-decade story. This is more rare than you’d expect. Take Pern. Some stories in the milestone series are great, but I really couldn’t care less who had done what with who after a while. And don’t get me started on Heinlein. He didn’t wrote people, he wrote plot vessels. You had to be really interested in the science to get into the books, because the characters were interchangeable.

Coatsworth’s characters aren’t like that. These people live and breathe on the page. By tying us intimately to the points of view of a couple characters in each generation and allowing us to really see through their eyes, Coatsworth lets us care about their lives, their futures and their histories. Each character has their own kind of strength, from the brilliant and brittle Ana to the loving and brash Andy, from the  stalwart Eddy to the endlessly resolved Lex. We get to watch as characters grow into their own. We’re privy to those bittersweet moments when one generation hands the torch to the next. We are invited into births and wakes, into success stories and tragedies. I cared about every one of these characters, felt their trials and troubles, and watched family tiffs or lovers’ spats with the smiling eyes of a community member through the series. The very humanity of their writing drew me in to feel like a member of this little spark in the star-studded night, getting along and muddling through as best as humanity ever could.

The Lingo

Writing Style

Solid description grounds this story: the crunch of an apple, the taste of fresh berries and the feeling of wind under a soaring body. It expands from those descriptions into the emotions that these sensations evoke: the bewildered joy of newcomers to a planet where the plants themselves make the light. The horrified compassion of a child raised in safety volunteering among refugees. The slightly lonely contentment of a creature who is not quite human and is satisfied with her lot. And the gut-churning horror of one human understanding the depravity of another.

It’s the visceral element to his descriptions that makes Coatsworth’s work so believable; you can feel the grass beneath your feet, almost taste the bioluminescent pollen on your tongue. Forever is a world you feel, and that makes the experiences within it real.

In the spirit of great works like the Mars series, Bradbury’s explorations and the Long Earth, this is one of those stories that makes the alien tangible, and forces us to ask why we saw it as so alien to begin with. And once we’ve asked that, we’re invited to ask ourselves: if we can find humanity in the Other, can’t we find it in our fellow humans?

Overall Rating

This series buoyed me up, raised my spirits and left me looking towards tomorrow with resolve. I can give no higher praise.