Book Review: The Liminal Zone by Richard Abbott

The Liminal Zone – by Richard Abbott
Book Three in the Far from the Spaceports Series

Selkies in space?

Nina Buraca, investigator of possible signs of alien life, has heard tales of mysterious events on Pluto’s moon Charon, where a science outpost studies extrasolar planets. Facing opposition from her colleagues, she nevertheless travels from Earth to uncover the truth. Once there, she finds herself working with a team of people who have many secrets. To make progress, she has to take sides in an old dispute that she knows nothing about.

Can she determine who – or what – is really behind the name “selkies” that the station’s staff have given to this uncanny phenomenon? And how will the discovery change her life?

The Liminal Zone, a novel in the Far from the Spaceports series, takes you a further twenty years into the future – and out to the edge of our solar system – for an encounter with the unknown.

My copy: Paperback, 242 pages, ISBN: 978-1-8380120-0-7

Richard Abbott likes to write on a variety of topics, so it should come as no surprise that his Far from the Spaceports series—set in a future collection of space colonies—would also eventually shift away from financial fraud in the outer reaches to mystery of another sort. In this case, investigator Nina Buraca makes her journey to probe the idea (possibility?) of selkies in space, having first gone up against obstruction at home and, now, seeming dead ends at her new duty station. Her journey is physical as well as emotional, having left behind a relationship with Aquilegia, her AI companion of over six years. As her time at Charon, Pluto’s major moon, moves forward, she encounters resistance, particularly from her assigned house AI, simply called House, and questions her own motives and behaviors as much as she does House’s obstinacy and peculiar shortcomings.

In the Far from the Spaceports universe, it isn’t unusual for humans to interact with their AI partners in ways that bring disagreements, petty jealousies and even offense on the part of the AI to the fore, and these are treated as they would be in humans, that is to say without surprise at the source. Abbott’s novels have gone far greater distance than any movie featuring AI in giving the concept sustained credibility, and here he takes a completely different approach to achieving this by way of any references to Aquilegia as in the past: she makes no appearance in the entire book apart from within Nina’s own memories.

Nina’s musings pair with her out-loud conversations and she runs up against a lot of frustration as the inhabitants of Charon seem to do their best to block any discussion of selkies in their galaxy. The novel’s progression reflects this as the creatures are not mentioned a great deal, most often by reference or implication, creating a sense of the mystery for readers, as it envelops them as much as does the claustrophobic feel of gravity deficiency. An encounter Nina experiences perpetuates this impression as we cheer (in lower tones) for her success, despite the bleak outlook for her exploration. Will she ever find selkies? Will anyone even ever talk about them?

For those unfamiliar with the mythical selkies, an exploration of their history is available here. Especially given our contemplation of the metaphorical role these beings inspire, it makes sense that Nina’s journey becomes as introspective, alongside its investigative nature, as it does. Few people enjoy discussing their emotional states of mind, so it almost stands to reason that those in Charon would withhold any topics that essentially force them to face their own character. As the novel progresses, we realize Abbott’s aptitude for creating a study of human nature that runs alongside the plot of Nina’s story, which can, on some levels, be ours. Space becomes far less alien than the unknown and often deliberately unexplored range of our own inner terra incognita.

In language use, Abbott once more makes reading about previously-perceived “dense” topics actually fun, with talk of “massaging” data and signal processing code that we not only understand, but also delight in as we move through the concepts. He also does impose limitations on his AIs, which surely contributes to their authenticity, one example being a human emotional state witnessed by an AI, with the human response that brings them closer in footing:

Unaccountably she was crying, and out of habit she shook her head to let her hair hide her face for a moment. He made a little wordless noise, of recognition, or appreciation, or something. She deliberately brushed her hair back again so that the wetness in her eyes and on her cheeks was in plain view. If he could face the prospect, she owed it to him to face it with him, to the extent possible.

Third in the series, The Liminal Zone, like its predecessors, stands alone as one story. Concepts such as AI remain, though the characters are completely new, and the protagonist’s journey is longer and perhaps more fraught with anxiety of a deeper level, given its exploration of the inner landscape. There is joy to be had as well, a Shakespearean sonnet makes an appearance and a subtheme of constructive silence—silence being feared by many—is threaded throughout, with subtly and calm. Also, as with Far from the Spaceports and Timing, it is a story to experience repeatedly as readers happen upon discoveries of their own.

*********

Other previous blogs featuring Richard Abbott and his work ~

Poetry in Bloom: “The Lady of Shalott”
Half Sick of Shadows
Audio Book Excerpt: Timing, Extract A 
Audio Book Excerpt: Timing, Extracts B & C
Book Excerpt: Half Sick of Shadows, Audio/Text
Guest Post: The Culture and Adaptability of Space Settlement
Cover Crush: The Liminal Zone

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A copy of The Liminal Zone was provided to facilitate an honest review.

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