Tomorrow, Titan Books is due to publish Gareth L. Powell‘s latest science fiction novel, Descendant Machine. This is the second novel in the author’s action-packed Continuance series, and sequel to Star and Bones. As part of the blog tour celebrating the release, the publisher has allowed me to share this excerpt. First, though, check out the synopsis:
When Nicola Mafalda’s scout ship comes under attack, she’s left deeply traumatised by the drastic action it takes to keep her alive. Months later, when an old flame comes to her for help, she realises she has to find a way to forgive both the ship and her former lover. Reckless elements are attempting to reactivate a giant machine that has lain dormant for thousands of years. To stop them, Nicola and her crew will have to put aside their differences, sneak aboard a vast alien megaship, and try to stay alive long enough to prevent galactic devastation.
And without further ado, let’s get on with the excerpt…
The cottage was real, but the mountain on whose side it stood was not.
[This opening line came to me before I even knew what the rest of the chapter was going to be about. It just felt like the perfect first line of a novel]
If you took your morning tea on the front doorstep, as was my habit, you could gaze past the hills on the opposite shore of the dark-watered loch at the foot of the mountain, to where, beyond their rolling, tree-lined ridges, you could see the far wall of the giant artificial cavern in which this peak, the loch and all their attendant foothills and forests were housed. The ark had painted the wall in subtle hues of grey and blue to trick the eye and give the illusion of sky and distance—but it was still unmistakeably a wall.
[Here, I’m trying to explain the situation by showing as well as telling, describing the scene as much as explaining it.]
On the sixty-fourth day of my stay in the cottage, as the artificial sky lightened towards dawn, I became distracted from my pyjama-clad contemplation of the distant wall by a movement on the loch’s shore.
[I packed a lot of scene-setting and context into one sentence!]
Far below, the blue-skinned figure of the last person in the world to whom I wished to speak had begun to ascend the steep, winding path that led up from the jetty.
I watched his slow, deliberate progress for the time it took to finish my tea, and then went back inside the white stone cottage without bothering to close the door. The interior still held the heat of the cooking fire. A copper kettle cooled on the hearth. The brightening day threw rectangles of brilliance across the floorboards. Spider plants and ivy trailed from countertops and windowsills. Books slumbered on sagging shelves.
[My ideal writing retreat]
I emptied the kettle’s remaining hot water into the sink. Then I rinsed out my cup and saucer and left them on the rack to dry. I had been living here in solitude for nine weeks, and these morning routines had become important to me. They gave my day structure, keeping my hands and surface-level thoughts occupied so the rest of my mind could heal.
[More context and a hint of past trauma. This isn’t just a retreat, it’s a convalescence]
My grandmother used to say, “We are always in the process of becoming the people we’re supposed to be.” But she never mentioned that the process can also work in reverse. Time and circumstance can rob us of parts of ourselves, forcing us to become something different—something less than what we were.
[It’s true, but it’s not irreversible]
And now, the party responsible for my loss had decided to pay a visit.
[She holds this person responsible for the reason she’s convalescing.]
The blue figure climbing towards my door was an envoy: a mixture of flesh and machine with no mind of its own. It was a sophisticated drone, controlled remotely. And I already knew who would be peering out at me from behind its cerulean eyeballs.
The Frontier Chic.
[Hehe, I love that name]
I had felt him approach.
The Frontier Chic was a scout craft, and I had been his navigator. Implants still joined our intellects on a subconscious level. These were necessary for him to be able to find a path through the substrate that lay beneath the physical universe. Computers couldn’t do it; only a biological mind could navigate that realm. When viewed through human eyes, the writhing chaos of the substrate collapsed into a navigable medium. By concentrating on a specific destination, the human brain could intuit a path through the strange, flickering light—a path invisible to artificial sensors and neurons. I had done that for him. I had enabled him to travel faster-than-light by taking a shortcut through the substrate, and in return he had protected me—right up until that last, horrendous day.
[A big info dump, but hopefully handled gracefully. And a final hint about the last, horrendous day!]
Gareth L. Powell’s Descendant Machine is out tomorrow, published by Titan Books in North America and in the UK.
Also on CR: Interview with Gareth L. Powell (2021); Guest Post on “Thinking Like a Monkey”; Excerpts from Embers of War, Fleet of Knives, and Stars and Bones
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