C.S. Friedman’s This Virtual Night (2020) is billed as book two in her OUTWORLDS/ALIEN SHORES series but these novels are, so far, stand-alone stories set in the same universe. Thus, you don’t need to have read the first book, This Alien Shore (1998), though I’d recommend doing so anyway because it was fabulous. All you need to know about Friedman’s world is that, long ago, the humans who left Earth to colonize other galaxies evolved in ways that their fellow humans who remained on Earth find repulsive. There is little communication or cooperation between Earth and the outworld “Variants,” though some people on earth are trying to reconcile the two groups.
In the opening scene of This Virtual Night, two friends playing a virtual reality game accidentally blow up the life-support systems of a space station in the outworlds and it appears that someone off-station hacked into their game to cause the sabotage.
Two people are compelled to discover the culprit. One is Micah, the software engineer who coded the game’s failsafe that is supposed to prevent players from entering restricted areas of the space station. If he can’t discover what happened, he’s going to be scapegoated and prosecuted for the crime. He doesn’t trust the company he works for to support him and, for all he knows, they may be complicit. Plus, he’s worried because Earth’s corporate law is not friendly toward variants like him.
The other interested party is Ruisa, a thrill-seeking outrunner who works for the guild that is trying to reconcile Earthlings with their variant cousins. When she is assigned to investigate the explosion, she chances upon Micah who’s been stranded on a creepy derelict space station. From there the two team up to discover who is responsible for hacking into the game.
This Virtual Night is a straight-up science fiction thriller, less complex and dark than most of Friedman’s novels for adults, and not as deep as This Alien Shore, but still an entertaining story. The space station settings are cool and probably my favorite part of the novel. The plot is diverting, but not as clever or astute as I’ve come to expect from Friedman. For a story about ingenious hackers trying to block a sophisticated computer virus, their efforts were fairly elementary. Also missing are Friedman’s usually profound insights into human behavior.
As far as the characters go, Micah is particularly appealing and I found his programming projects about smell and memory evocation to be thought-provoking. Ruisa’s work, also, is interesting, and Friedman inspired me to think about the psychology of having the kind of job that requires someone to be away from home for very long stretches of time. Micah, the kind of guy who sits in front of a computer all day, and Ruisa, who has trouble keeping still, make an unlikely but complementary team.
Audible Studios’ edition of This Virtual Night is 13.25 hours long. Kathleen McInerney gives a nice performance. Friedman is planning a third OUTWORLDS novel and I look forward to reading it. I’m hoping we don’t have to wait 22 years for that one!