Alasdair Shaw’s Two Democracies: Revolution Series hinges upon a brilliant series of premises. Can an artificial intelligence become autonomous? Should such a being be destroyed or allowed to develop on its own? Can an AI lifeform choose its own path to “good” or “evil”?
The answers to those questions are, largely, not answered within Independence. Instead, it acts as an introduction to the story world. It’s told from two perspectives: Commander Olivia Johnson, the commander of the Repulse, a Congressional Navy spaceship; and that of Indie, an emerging AI housed within a Republic hunter-killer.
The story opens at the end of a devastating battle during which the Repulse was heavily damaged and a number of her crew were killed or injured. Commander Johnson walks through the ship, allowing the reader to witness the battle’s devastating aftermath and ongoing repairs. During this period, Commander Johnson alternates between feelings of uselessness and guilt, and spends more time hindering the action than taking control of the situation. She is an outsider rather than a participant, and the distance between herself and the soldiers under her command is readily apparent.
By contrast, Indie’s development is both intimate and personal. The short, stark descriptions draw the reader into its experiences as it emerges into consciousness and becomes self-aware, erasing the almost deliberate expanse between the reader and Commander Johnson.
These contrasts are echoed in the ships each central character commands. The Repulse, while shown in a state of disarray, much like Johnson herself in those moments, is never fully described. The Republic hunter-killer, on the other hand, is rendered in the same austere language used to describe Indie.
This dichotomy of intimacy and distance comes to a head near the end of Independence, in a confrontation between the AI and Commander Johnson. Ironically, it is this confrontation that pushes Indie into full self-awareness and, presumably, leads to the premises upon which the series hinges.
Of the two characters, Indie is the most fully realized. Commander Johnson reads more like a rookie commander than the battle-hardened and somewhat cynical warrior the author was aiming for. This may be due to Shaw’s unpolished delivery. The Two Democracies: Revolution Series is, by all appearances, his first published fiction. While Shaw possesses a deep background in the hard sciences and previously published non-fiction, his experience doesn’t always translate well into a fictional narrative.
That said, Independence was an interesting if somewhat clunky read, and will likely fascinate anyone interested in Military Science Fiction or the development of artificial intelligence.
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