Romance Saturday Returns with Brenda Cooper’s EDGE OF DARK

Edge of Dark coverIt’s Romance Saturday at SBR! And today, I have a special treat for you…and a question: Can robotic intelligence really feel love? And if it does, what form would that love take?

While Brenda Cooper’s EDGE OF DARK is about many things, perhaps it’s mostly about just that: love, and its various forms.

But describing how EDGE OF DARK gets there is somewhat convoluted.

Within the first few chapters, we meet Nona — scion of a powerful family from an area of space known as the Glittering Edge, her soon-to-be-love-interest, Charlie (a ranger and conservationist from the planet Lym), and Nona’s best friend Chrystal and her family (Chrystal’s wife Katherine, husband Yi, and husband Jason). We also meet a race called the Next.

Now, the Next are hard to describe. They’re a form of artificial intelligence that’s gone way beyond AIs and robots; they’ve actually found a way to digitize human experiences and put them into inanimate objects. How and why they did this in the first place is unclear, but one thing’s for sure: The Next don’t particularly like humans, and they doubly don’t like the humans who reside in the Glittering Edge.

Anyway, Nona and Charlie’s story arc is easier to follow. They meet on the planet Lym, which is a type of natural paradise — one the people of Lym have worked hard to restore over time, as technology once nearly wrecked their world. Charlie, as a ranger, believes in conserving nature. But sometimes he has to “do the pretty” and meet up with important dignitaries, then show them around as Lym depends on tourism for a good amount of its income in order to continue staying as pristine as it is. Nona is one of those dignitaries, a visitor from the Glittering Edge (a bunch of space stations and artificial planetoids, roughly); she was asked by her now-deceased parents to please visit Lym, as it’s the closest planet around.

And of course, this being Romance Saturday and all, Charlie and Nona eventually pair off.

But that’s not the end of the story by a mile. (Especially as I promised robots in love. Trust me, I’m getting there.)

Chrystal and her family are by far the more important storyline. They originally reside on a space station called High Sweet Home, and are scientists who create genetically engineered animals. They live and work together, and are a totally self-sufficient unit.

Then the Next comes to High Sweet Home. They gather various humans, purposes unknown; they only take the healthiest, the strongest, those in their physical prime. Babies, the elderly, the crippled, and the injured are all killed out of hand.

The remaining humans of High Sweet Home are offered a choice. They can become part of the Next — become artificial intelligences. Or they can die.

Chrystal and her family definitely do not want to die. So they decide to go along with the Next.

But becoming an artificial intelligence isn’t easy. Even though the Next have a way to make their new bodies look and feel much like their old ones, Chrystal and her family will no longer be able to have sex; they also do not eat or breathe. And while they can and do move, talk, and think, it’s not exactly the same.

Yet their love for one another survives this horrible displacement. (Hold that thought.)

Now, why did the Next do this? They needed someone in between the humans and the full-blown, ancient Next. These newly-made Next — Chrystal and her family, among others — are meant to become ambassadors, so the humans will be able to understand what the Next wants.

And one of those things the Next wants, inexplicably, is the planet Lym. Which is why Charlie is so important. (But I digress.)

Of course, Chrystal and Nona are best friends, which means Chrystal in particular is well-placed to begin negotiations. (Thus why Nona is important.) But Chrystal is ambivalent; she is still angry at the Next for doing this to her and her family.

The rest of the story is for you to read. But I have a few more thoughts for you before you do.

First, the stronger human element is obviously Chrystal and her family. Their love matters whether they’re in human bodies or robot bodies. Their personalities do not change when they become digitized.

Second, Nona is a very weak protagonist. She is smart, but she is not driven; the first thing she has ever cared much about — Chrystal becoming a robot through no fault of Chrystal’s — is not really strong enough to do much with.

Third, Charlie is stronger, but somehow isn’t as strong as he should be, either.

I don’t know why Nona and Charlie weren’t stronger as a couple. I liked them both, even though Nona is nowhere near strong enough to compete with Chrystal and Chrystal’s family. I believed that Charlie and Nona would have a dalliance. And I believed they would both become better people for it — which is what a good romance is all about.

Even so, I just didn’t care that much about them. And I don’t know why.

That’s why the real romance that I cared about here was between Chrystal and her family. How they adjusted to becoming Next was well worth reading, even though in some spots it’s incredibly disturbing.

That said, I have to believe Ms. Cooper wanted it this way. She must’ve wanted to show that love is more important than the nature of the form. I get that.

However, I don’t understand why Nona is even in this book (much less Charlie and the whole issue of Lym’s fate as a planet). She’s not strong enough to compete with Crystal and her story.

And I really don’t understand why Lym is so important to the Next. They’re artificial intelligences. Why do they need anything at all? (The whole bit about the Next needing raw materials that only Lym can provide is very flimsy, to my mind. If you have all of space to get your raw materials from, as it appears the Next does, why would you be so hot on trying to get a foothold on Lym?)

Bottom line: EDGE OF DARK is compelling and disturbing, and I appreciated reading about Chrystal and her family. But somehow, I felt disconnected from most of the book, even though I liked the characters.

That said, I do want to find out what happens to Chrystal and her family next (pardon the pun), so I do intend to read the second book in the Glittering Edge duology. But I hope that somehow I will be able to become more invested, emotionally, in what happens with all involved.

Grade: B-plus.

–reviewed by Barb

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