by Lewis Shiner
Review by Benjamin Wald
Subterranean Press Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 9781596063389
Date: 06 August 2010 List Price $14.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
Frontera is Lewis Shiner's first novel, brought back into print by Subterranean Press. Shiner is often associated with the cyberpunk movement, and Frontera has several characteristic features of cyberpunk, including corporations taking over from states as the centers of world power and human brains being supplemented with implanted computers. As well as these surface trappings, the novel also reminds me of the mood of a lot of cyberpunk, particularly Gibson's work; a mix of regret for the bright imagined future that is no longer possible alongside a breathless wonder at the possibilities the universe still holds. Shiner's short novel, almost a novella, skillfully evokes this mood throughout, using multiple point of view characters and frequent flashbacks to explore various facets of the ambiguous future he depicts.
The novel is set in a future in which nation states have collapsed, with multinational corporations taking over as the major powers on earth. This was accompanied by a period of rioting and chaos that resulted in the abandonment of the space program. This has left the fledgling Martian colony cut off and abandoned. However, when word of a technological breakthrough on Mars, a breakthrough that promises vast power to its possessor, filters down to earth, the mega-corporation Pulsystems cobbles together a mission to Mars from left over NASA equipment to secure the technology at all costs. The plot centers around what happens when the Pulsystems mission reaches Mars, initiating the first contact with the abandoned colony in eight years. The various characters all have their own goals in the encounter, and many of these are at cross-purposes to one another, causing escalating tensions between and within the colonists and astronauts.
This is primarily a novel about characters, and the way that the characters relate to, and are shaped by, their social environment. There are numerous point of view characters, and each is realistically depicted, with lots of attention to each characters inner life and unique viewpoint on the unfolding action. All of the main characters have suffered disappointment; the future has not been what they were promised. There is a sense of melancholy at this, but it is tempered by the fact that each character remains driven to salvage what they can of their dreams from their situation.
What distinguishes the protagonists from the antagonists is the nature of these dreams. The protagonist, those characters whose point of view we share at one point or another and who we sympathize with, are each driven by a desire to push the limits of human accomplishment, whether by exploring the cosmos or by transforming Mars into a thriving world. The antagonists, on the other hand, are those who turn away from the possibilities of human achievement in favor of accumulating power, allowing people to be driven apart and made less so that they can end up on top. One of the main villains, the power mad leader of the Martian colony, is shown to have gone bad when he allows his dream of a terraformed mars to be replaced by a desire for power for its own sake. In the hands of a lesser author this could have been a didactic message, but Shiner pulls it off with subtlety and beauty.
This is an excellent book. Like many cyberpunk novels, it brings forcefully home all the ways that the future has failed to live up to our hopes. However, unlike some other works, Frontera doesn’t stop there. It presses us to consider all the things we can still achieve, all the dreams that are still attainable. This mix of the elegiac with the optimistic is a powerful blend. Anyone who thinks that the only contribution of cyberpunk to science fiction is a few gadgets and brain-implants owes it to themselves to read this book and see how much they are missing.