This Virtual Night returns us to “The Outworlds,” C.S. Friedman’s quietly intriguing science-fictional universe. The world Friedman painted in 1998’s This Alien Shore, a cyberpunk-flavored space adventure, felt ahead of its time: entire cultures built around physical and mental diversity, with strange and evocative embellishments. In this future, humanity settled distant planets using a star-drive that, unknown to the settlers, would cause great mental and physical mutations in their children. After a horrified Earth cuts off all contact with the colonies, they develop their own cultures, accepting and embracing their differences, and eventually discover a new system of faster-than-light travel that lets them reconnect with Earth and each other.
Set a few decades after the events of This Alien Shore, This Virtual Night follows Ru Gaya, who has just returned from a disastrous attempt to contact a lost colony. Because outriders like Ru are known for their adaptability and not relying too heavily on computer technology—they’re disconnected from the “outernet” for years or decades a time—Ru is hired to investigate a strange situation involving a terrorist attack and a VR game that might be brainwashing its players. While exploring a derelict space station implicated in the attack, she rescues Micah Bello, a game designer set up to take the blame, as well as a Ivar, a scavenger who’s been living in a sort of artificially-induced Lord of the Flies situation. Following clues to Ivar’s home station, an unregulated den of pirates and smugglers, Ru and Micah discover that this game-based terrorism is a danger set to spread throughout the outworlds, and must race to stop it.
Where This Alien Shore was ahead of its time, This Virtual Night feels oddly dated. Many elements that wouldn’t have seemed out of place in the nineties land flatly now—particularly its attitude towards technology and virtual reality, which recalls films like eXistenZ, Hackers, or the cornier holodeck shenanigans of Star Trek. The novel’s real villain, an off-screen “kill all humans” artificial intelligence, is a very tired trope at this point, and even less interesting than usual in this incarnation. This Virtual Night affects a kind of half-hearted Luddism, critiquing the dangers of over-connection, the addicting and reality-warping potential of video games and social media. Whatever germ of truth there might be to that message, its delivery—from the mouths of cyborgs, in totally artificial space habitats—makes it seem hypocritical, at best.
Also dated is a mild strain of sexism in the book. Ru’s former partner was on a quest to have sex with as many Variants as possible, even in first contact situations—a blend of distasteful exoticisizing and objectifying that leads to disaster, but is never called out as such. Both Ru and Ivar are quick to call women “bitches,” and there’s a similarly cavalier attitude towards the many “whores” who appear—none of whom are named. It wouldn’t seem out of place in a midlist nineties fantasy novel, but it’s a bit jarring to read today.
Most disappointing for fans of This Alien Shore is how this novel fails to engage with much of the promise of the setting. This Alien Shore’s glimpse of a truly inclusive society was what made it stick in so many readers’ minds: where many different types of bodies and minds are not just tolerated, but embraced, with social and technological assists. That society is almost totally absent from This Virtual Night, sadly. Ru is Gueran—a people with mental, rather than physical, variation. But, rather than exploring something like Asperger’s or Tourette’s, as characters in the previous novel did, Ru’s Variation just seems to be that she’s impulsive, a thrill-seeker. Micah is a physical Variant, but it’s of a purely cosmetic variety, one we quickly forget about. The fascinating culture of the Outworlds is still there, we catch glances of it, but the bulk of the narrative steers far clear of it.
The novel feels strongest where it can stick to adventuring. While it’s plagued by some spatial issues—a few plot points are difficult to visualize—the rhythm of Ru and Micah getting into tricky spots and out again makes for a good romp, playing up their different skills and weaknesses. Ivar’s subplot—an attempt to regain his place in a violent world of gangsters—feels disconnected from the rest of the book, but the stakes are more immediate, and it makes a counterpoint to Ru and Micah’s increasingly cute relationship.
There’s something almost too apt about Ru Gaya as the main character here—a competent but out-of-touch adventurer, coming back to the world after decades asleep. There’s nothing wrong with some escapist sci-fi escapades, and no need for every science fiction novel to tackle extrapolations of real-world issues, but it’s hard to overlook the missed opportunities in this novel. This Virtual Night is a return to a truly fascinating world that, despite having an explorer for a protagonist, it fails to explore.
This Virtual Night
By C.S. Friedman
Published November 3, 2020
Appalachian in the big city. Bookseller, specialty coffee pro, SF scholar.