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Orbital Burn
K.A. Bedford
Edge, 305 pages

Orbital Burn
K.A. Bedford
Reclusive by nature, K.A. Bedford writers full-time from his home in Ballajura, Western Australia. Orbital Burn is his first published novel.

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A review by Victoria Strauss

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One morning, not long before the end of the world, a dead woman named Lou sat drinking espresso in Sheb's Old Earth Diner, one of the few places still open in the cheap part of Stalktown.
Who could resist an opening sentence like that? Certainly not me. I hadn't planned to read this book, which was included as an extra in a package sent to me for review; but that opening hooked me, and I'm glad it did, because otherwise I would have missed a very entertaining novel.

Lou is the victim of an accelerated tissue necrosis nanovirus. Clinically she's dead. Some time ago, a nanogenic cure restored her to something very much like life -- but since then she hasn't been able to afford another full treatment, just periodic refreshers that leave her looking (and smelling) like a week-old corpse. Shunned by most normal living people, Lou has become part of the underclass on a planet named Kestrel, eking out a living as a private investigator. Unfortunately, Kestrel is soon due to be destroyed by a giant asteroid. Except for a few stubborn holdouts, everyone is leaving, heading for the Orbital, a huge resort habitat high above the planet's surface. Lou has put off departure for as long as possible, because she knows that once she gets to the Orbital she won't be able to make a living -- and without the ability to buy even the diminished treatments she's getting now, the nanovirus will destroy her once and for all.

One last case is about to fall into her lap -- a very odd case, with a very odd client: an augmented beagle named Dog, who has been fitted with head-machines that make it possible for him to speak and think like a human being. Dog wants Lou to find his companion, a boy he knows only as Kid. Kid is a disposable (a kind of android, mass-produced to do humanity's dirty work), and a brain-damaged one at that, but Dog has formed a deep and inexplicable telepathic connection with Kid. For a long time, they have been each other's only friend. Kid vanished in a bizarre incident involving a pair of Martian drug-traffickers and a group of heavily-armed policemen. But Dog, who can still hear Kid's telepathic voice, is desperate to rescue him.

Lou takes the case, partly for profit (Dog offers to pay her with himself, a pretty good deal, since an augmented pet is worth a lot of money), partly because she's lonely and likes the idea of having an animal companion for a while. She soon discovers that some very surprising -- and very dangerous -- people also have an interest in Dog and Kid: a powerful family of Martian gangsters, a mysterious synthetic mind called Otaru, and Lou's sleazy ex-husband Tom, who has shown up out of the blue with an unconvincing story about wanting to patch things up. Obviously there's more at stake than one damaged disposable boy. But what? And can Lou figure it all out -- not to mention save her and Dog's lives -- before the asteroid turns Kestrel into space-debris?

Orbital Burn fits into that increasingly popular subgenre, the SF-crime hybrid, blending intriguing science fictional premises and settings with elements of hardboiled detective fiction. Lou is an unusual and appealing heroine -- feisty and vulnerable, fiercely independent and dreadfully lonely, struggling gamely to make as much of a life for herself as she can manage in the face of a social ostracism, a (sometimes gruesomely) decaying body, and a load of ugly memories. Her poignant relationship with the equally abused and lonely Dog has enough sharp edges to save it from bathos (she'd like to cuddle him, but he can't stand her corpse-smell), and Dog himself, though big-eyed and lovable, has an odd melancholy dignity that keeps him from becoming one of those cutesy anthropomorphized animal characters. K.A. Bedford also does a good job of drawing a contrast between Dog's instinctively doggy behavior and the artificial personality imposed on him by his head-machines.

The various exotic settings are nicely fleshed out with an array of smart details (such as the sheets of electronic Paper that substitute for personal computers, and Lou's electronic Friend, Jenny), and generously laced with satire. The Orbital, for instance, which is basically a Kubla Khan-ish pleasure dome, is run by a rigidly fundamentalist Christian government ("a matter of raising revenue and turning a blind eye to what the sinners did," Lou thinks sourly at one point), whose true intolerance Lou realizes only after she gets mixed up with the Office of the Holy Judiciate. Bedford also raises some serious issues, using the interplay between disposables, synthetic minds, augmented animals, and a woman artificially enabled to live beyond her death to intelligently explore questions of free will, humanity, and the existence or nonexistence of the soul.

All of this good stuff hangs upon a fast-paced but somewhat shaky plot, which in addition to the basic detective story includes time travel, aliens, alternate dimensions, gods, and the possible ontological transformation of humanity. Bedford isn't quite able to amalgamate this ambitious stew of themes, and things fall apart at the end, with an overly-swift and not very convincing deus ex machina-style conclusion. He keeps it going most of the way, though. Flawed but striking, this is a promising debut, and Bedford is a writer I'll be watching.

Copyright © 2004 Victoria Strauss

Victoria Strauss is a novelist, and a lifelong reader of fantasy and science fiction. Her most recent fantasy novel, The Burning Land, is available from HarperCollins Eos. For more information, visit her website.


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