Review: 'Further: Beyond the Threshold', by Chris Roberson
The first line in this science-fiction novel is: “When I woke up, surrounded by talking dog-people, it was clear we’d strayed pretty far from the mission parameters.” (p. v) There are a talking chimpanzee in a smoking jacket, cravat, and pin-striped trousers; a gigantic lion with a hairless human head; and a robot in the form of a silvery-mercury metallic eagle in the first scene. Furry, no. Anthropomorphic science-fiction, yes.
Captain Ramachandra Jason Stone is a 22nd century spaceman, the captain of Wayfarer One, the first interstellar spaceship launched to travel to Alpha Centauri. The crew is put into cryogenic suspension for the forty-three year voyage, but something goes wrong.
The Wayfarer One is not found and Stone revived until 12,000 years later. By then, humanity – defined as anything sentient, whether a natural life-form or an Artificial Intelligence – has spread into the Human Entelechy, a “superculture of thousands of inhabited worlds and habitats linked by the threshold network, centered roughly on Sol. There are roughly ten trillion sentients, not counting the large number of intelligences who exist as digital incarnations in virtual domains”, etc. (p. 45)
With every intelligence “uplifted”, and these humans able to choose whatever bodies they want, Stone finds himself in the midst of a humanity that he can scarcely believe in:
‘Well,’ I began, and then trailed off. I motioned to one side, where a lake the precise shade of sapphire glittered under a towering purple mountain, surrounded on all sides by a lush green forest. ‘It’s all …’ I motioned to the other side, where buildings like ethereal fairy tale castles rose in profusion, all towering spires and impossible angles, looking like they were made of spun glass and gossamer. Overhead spiraled creatures like humans, but with their arms and legs resculpted into enormous translucent wings, half bat and half butterfly, calling to each other in voices like an angel’s song. Around us on the fast-moving slidewalk stood a crazy-quilt assortment of forms, from a one-meter-tall robotic spider clicking its legs together like castanets to a cow-like figure in a flowing dress gently chewing its cud, its large brown eyes absently watching the scenery rush by. ‘It’s all CONTEXT, I suppose.’ (p. 43)
‘And so human means …?’ I struggled to fit everything I’d been told into a single, all-encompassing definition.
‘Human is used to refer to any Earth-derived sentient.’
I nodded, mulling that over. ‘And is there any NON-Earth derived sentience?’
‘That, sir, is a question to which many would be quite eager to know the answer.’ (p. 47)
Stone quickly tires of being gawked at and being a celebrity to a multiworld civilization connected by wormhole thresholds (just step from one world to another) that stretches the meaning of “human” in weird and wonderful ways:
The crowd ahead of us was variegated and strange to behold. Some were clearly human, though with unearthly colorations and strange body modifications. Others appeared to be animal forms, familiar from the zoos of my childhood, but dressed in clothing and carrying themselves with obvious intelligence. Still others were made of metal and glass and gems, artificial beings like the silver eagle on my shoulder, though in a riot of shapes and forms. And many more besides were of uncertain provenance, strange mixtures of organic and inorganic, of human and animal and machine. (p. 49)
A detail that Stone learns of the past 12,000 years of history is that these “humans” all believe in live and let live. Everyone is free to live as he, she, or it wants, provided that this does not interfere with anyone else’s freedom. But there was a time five thousand years previously when a sect arose, the Iron Mass, that insisted that everyone had to live according to its doctrines of organic superiority and extermination of all artificial or digital intelligence. When the Iron Mass started a bloody crusade to force its tenets throughout space, the Entelechy’s government, the Consensus, voted to disconnect the threshold to its homeworld, rendering it permanently isolated and a “lost culture”.
The reappearance of Stone spurs interest throughout the Entelechy in finishing a stalled project to create the Further, the first faster-than-light spaceship, to explore beyond the limits of the Entelechy to hopefully discover a new, non-Earth-derived intelligence. Due to his “expertise” in exploring beyond known space, Stone is offered the captaincy of the Further. Feeling that he can never blend into the Entelechy, and not wanting to feel like a helpless ward of this society, he accepts.
To dismiss the rest of the plot (over 200 pages) in just a few words, the first destination of the Further turns out to be, not a new, non-Earth-derived intelligence, but a world colonized since their isolation by the Iron Mass, who are plotting to resume their attack upon the Entelechy. Stone and his landing party are captured, and from there it’s a pretty standard space-opera adventure of attempts to battle and escape back to the Further.
In fact, it is almost overpoweringly “Star Trekky”, with Stone as Captain Kirk, Maruti Sun Ghekre the Ninth (the smoking-jacket, pin-striped-trouser-clad, cigar-smoking chimpanzee) as Bones McCoy, Xerxes (a featureless, genderless bipedal robot) as Mr. Spock, Arluq Max’inux (a three-meter-tall, well-dressed bipedal female killer whale) as Scotty, and Bin-Ney (a human-looking human) as every redshirted crewman who was ever killed while exploring a new planet. Comparisons break down at that point, but others of the crew of the Further include Ailuros, a human-sized cat-woman, and Hu and Mu Grimnismal, two three-foot-tall corvid brothers, as well as many modified humans like green-haired Cirea t’Stralla. Some of the supporting cast back in the Human Entelechy are also anthropomorphic, such as the Hierocrat Nminm, who “looked like a cross between a sumo wrestler and a toad, and wouldn’t have been out of place if cast as a monster on an episode of Doctor Who.” (pgs. 204-205) Further: Beyond the Threshold contains a satisfying number of anthropomorphic animal characters.
The publisher’s publicity says, “The first in critically acclaimed author Chris Roberson’s scintillating new series, Further: Beyond the Threshold is a fascinating ride to the farthest reaches of the imagination.” After all, this is only the first voyage of the starship Further, to boldly go where no man has gone before. It still has lots of strange new worlds to seek out and explore.