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Approaching Omega
Eric Brown
Telos paperback £7.99

review by Tom Matic

There's more than a whiff of Alien, Blade Runner and Star Trek's the Borg to this tense slice of SF horror from rising UK star Eric Brown. Put simply, the story revolves around an interplanetary colonising mission that goes horribly wrong. However the expedition, sponsored by the Omega Corporation, is far from straightforward, and before he departs, Latimer is contacted by a whistleblower within the organisation, who draws his attention to serious technical shortcomings on the colonists' ship the Dauntless. Sure enough, one thousand years later, three out of the five sleeper hangars have been destroyed, with many lives lost. Worse, the colonists are unaware that the ship's computer Central AI has been instructed to subject them to forcible cybernetic augmentation.

Brown makes the reader very viscerally aware of the main protagonist Latimer's situation, as he gags when he is confronted by the grisly spectacle of augmented humans: "He thought he was about to vomit in his suit, but managed to gag down a mouthful of vile tasting bile... He saw halved bodies, torsos with limbs and heads removed."

In another scene, Brown ratchets up the tension by drawing attention to the possibility of instant death by depressurisation in the event of the slightest puncture to his spacesuit by the jagged edges caused by the damage to the Dauntless. Details such as these serve to heighten the suspense by highlighting the vulnerability of the human space travellers in contrast with the apparent invincibility of the cyborgs.

As well as the unpleasant possibility of vomiting in your spacesuit, there's another scene where Latimer loses "his footing on a thick slick of offal" in zero gravity. Rarely has a science fiction writer had such a keen eye for the gross-out aspects of space travel. This reflects Brown's dark, though ultimately optimistic, vision of humanity's future.

The colonising project is called into question right from the start by the presence of the 'anti-col' protesters in the prelude, which also shows the Omega mission as a desperate quest to find a planet to escape to. Human society on Earth is on the verge of collapse, due to ecological degradation. Latimer feels guilty about abandoning the Earth to its fate, but is unimpressed by the 'Earth First' campaigner's warnings, dismissing them as "the bleatings of the envious who wished that they too could begin a new life among the stars."

With this background setup, there is added poignancy when Latimer and his fellow sleepers awaken, and realise that "it might be another thirty thousand years before we find another Earth-like, or even terraformable planet", but they cannot return to Earth, which has "probably blown itself to Hell and back." The fact that they are now completely alone, isolated and dependent on the Central AI and its army of "drones and roboids" only intensifies the suspense and horror generated by the predicament faced by the survivors of the disaster that has befallen the mission. Moreover, when he and fellow pioneer Emecheta take a closer look at the site of the damage, they discover that it has been caused not by meteor damage but by system failure. On seeing this Latimer begins to give credence to earlier warnings that "Omega have been keeping things back from the crew, the colonists", warnings that he had dismissed as "Earth First propaganda." Later there is the revelation that "the Omega Corporation knew they were sending us out with defective coils."

Approaching Omega uses the contrasting fates of the two couples, the happily married Ted and Caroline Latimer, and the estranged lovers Emecheta and Jenny Li, to explore the human duality of emotion and rationality implied by the notion of the cyborg. Soon after the sleepers' premature revival, Emecheta mentions his reasons for opposing having couples on the mission, leading to Jenny Li's outburst: "So that's why you dumped me, you heartless bastard!"

Emecheta's position implies a criticism of Latimer's leadership, in that having Caroline aboard, he might put her safety above other considerations. Later when he finds out that Caroline has been augmented; Latimer kills her rather than allow her to suffer what he sees as a fate worse than death. However, unlike Latimer, for all his "remorseless logic", Emecheta does not kill his augmented former lover: "Latimer considered the big Nigerian, then, his cold rationality... So he had a fallible, human, side after all. He wondered if that was why Emecheta had sacrificed himself in the end, because he knew that his inability to kill Jenny Li had compromised their mission to destroy Central."

So ironically it is Jenny Li, rather than Emecheta with, who survives as a cyborg, but one who still retains her essential humanity. "Jenny Li tipped back her head and laughed, and the gesture was so human that Latimer could almost ignore the sight of the ugly cranial augmentation that adhered to the base of her skull."

Encountering the augmented Jenny Li, a figure not unlike Star Trek's Seven of Nine, Latimer is forced to question his decision to mercy kill his wife: "Every time he beheld the diminutive figure of Jenny Li, every time he beheld the caring and compassionate human being she had become, he questioned his actions... and wondered at a future that would have contained Caroline."

The final chapter is a bit too much of a saccharine utopian vision for my taste, but its echo of the prelude's first sentence brings the narrative full circle nicely, and the revelation of the Earth's devastation centuries before is in sharp contrast with this 'coda'.
Approaching Omega

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