Barbary Station appeared on a lot of best-of lists, and rightfully so. But if you’d asked me what I thought about it in the first hundred (or so) pages, I would’ve had a very different take.
It took me until page 120 or so to figure out why I was having such a hard time getting into Barbary Station. By rights, this book is so up my alley I should have been able to walk right into its pages like I’d been born there. It wasn’t the setting, nor was it the characters, nor the premise. It wasn’t the author’s voice, the pacing, or anything like that. Still, somehow I just couldn’t catch the flow of Stearns’ book.
Finally, I put my finger on it: the central political conflict that motivates much of the incidental inter-character conflict was lost on me. It wasn’t complicated or anything, it’s just that the way Stearns presented it it went in one ear and out the other (so to speak). I’m sure it’s not her fault – I just missed it, and was left with that arresting moment of “wait, what?” every time a new interaction went south because of that conflict.
Thankfully, once I was able to put my finger on what was tripping me up I fared a lot better, and almost immediately got into the swing of this book. It didn’t hurt that, coincidentally, right as I recovered from my revelation the whole AI plot (totally what I’d showed up for in the first place) picked up in earnest. From then on, there was no hope for me. I was in love!
I can’t find anything on Stearns’ background in AI, but I just can’t believe she hasn’t got one. AI development is one of my passions, and most of my life (and my college career) has been spent plumbing its depths and keeping abreast of the latest theories and developments. Stearns’ view of how real artificial intelligence would be integrated into a future society blew me away. Her vision for the future is brilliant (and perfectly credible), and her handling of the moral implications of true AI is the perfect blend of approachable and cutting-edge; it’s truly inspiring without ever trending preachy or overly “science”y.
In addition, Stearns has presented literally the only version of the “person entering a virtual realization of the concept-space a computer operates within” trope that didn’t make me roll my eyes – since Tron. Since that sentence is a nightmare, let me explain as well as I can without spoilers. Adda, the computer engineer protagonist, has a specialized jack implant with which she “jacks in” to computers in order to interact with their AIs. When she does this, she enters a hallucinographic environment that abstracts computer data into (sometimes odd) real-world items for her to interact with. This trope has been used over and over again, since Tron and the Matrix, Hackers and Andromeda. And visually, it kind of works. But when it’s used in writing, it’s always fallen flat for me. Stearns, however, uses this technique in a way that adds to, rather than distracts from, her narrative. Suffice it to say I’m very impressed.
To round it out, she writes amazing characters! The protagonist couple are wonderfully and stably in love, without going grossly “lovey”, and they’re each believably real as individual characters and as partners for each other. As a bonus for some of us readers, Stearns’ writing is body-inclusive and one of her main characters is a total introvert – and not just when it’s convenient to the story! Stearns displays a real knack for a very particular kind of humor, too, and I am HERE for it.
Which brings me to my last observation for this spoiler-free review: this book would make an AMAZING movie! So many of the plot-advancing reveals are visual, and while Stearns writes them exceedingly well they would be astounding on the large screen. Everything about this book would pop on screen – from the epic scenes, to the breathtaking action, to the nail-biting suspense, and beyond. I’ve never actually *wished* for a movie adaptation like this before. And with the reception it’s gotten since it was published, I think chances are good Barbary Station might just make it to a theater near you (and me).