Dyson’s Fear (Fermi’s Progress Book 1)
If one is building the largest spaceship that the human race has ever seen, a vessel developed with the specific goal of conducting faster-than-light (FTL) travel to expand humanity’s reach to toe farthest reaches of space, then it would probably be a good idea to ensure that the ship does not also annihilate every member of the human race not currently residing on said vessel. Now I’m not a fancy-pants scientist with a degree or anything, just a humble book reviewer, but that just seems like good, common horse sense. Unfortunately for the crew of the Fermi that is indeed the scenario they are faced with at the beginning of Chris Farnell’s scifi dark comedy Dyson’s Fear, the first book in the Fermi’s Progress quadrilogy. Science-fiction comedy is a pretty rare concept to see these days as it’s very hard to pull off successfully; recently only Justin Woolley’s The Shakedowners has impressed me at all when reading through some titles in the subgenre. As such, I was rather intrigued when the author offered me a review copy of the collected series, and decided to take a look and see what it was all about. My decision was aided by some eye-catching cover art and design work, and by a back-cover blurb that promised a heady mixture of scifi and comedy and also featured some impressive quotes: when you have both Ken MacLeod and Nate Crowley blurbing your book, you can be sure I’ll be sitting up and taking notice. As such, I was eager to see what Dyson’s Fear would serve up, and decided to dive right in and start reading.
As the book opens, the beleaguered crew of the Earth spaceship Fermi have a small problem. The Prototype Faster than Light (FTL) engine system built into the Fermi was supposed to be utterly revolutionary and send them into the deepest reaches of space for their mission of exploration. The good news is that the system did indeed achieve that, to its credit; unfortunately, its activation also kind of, in a completely accidental and unforeseeable way, generated a shockwave that incinerated Earth and most of the solar system as it left. Hardly an ideal scenario for the crew of the Fermi, now the last remnants of humanity, and matters don’t exactly get better for them as the FTL drive shuts down. They find themselves parked next to a gigantic Dyson’s Sphere, an artificial planet containing unknown dangers and alien races and controlled by a vast lonely Artificial Intelligence that they must desperately negotiate with to ensure their survival; and as if that wasn’t stressful enough, the FTL engines are slowly powering up again and no-one can figure out a way to stop them. It’s certainly a tense and atmospheric situation that author Chris Farnell develops, and in other hands might well have served as the basis for a straight-laced scifi thriller, of the kind that is ten-a-penny in the scifi genre charts on the Kindle, and subsequently become lost in the mass of titles. Fortunately, however, Farnell takes the much more interesting (and much more difficult) decision to turn this scenario into an intelligent, witty and often darkly comic tribute to a variety of scifi genre tropes and media properties; in the process, creating an incredibly engaging, highly amusing and often surprisingly thought-provoking scifi adventure that also manages to be consistently thrilling.
Farnell’s black humour take on the scenario is clear from the very beginning of the novella, as scenes following a group of astronauts exploring the interior of the Dyson’s Sphere are interposed with scenes demonstrating just how this particularly ramshackle group had left their often mundane careers on Earth (usually completely unsuited for venturing into space on a revolutionary spaceship) and found themselves forming part of the Fermi’s crew. Amongst them are a pioneering theoretical physicist who often suffers from FOMO, a muscle-bound supersoldier, the supersoldier’s brother (neither musclebound nor a supersoldier), and a billionaire software genius/philanthropist who inadvertently funded the Earth’s destruction. Together this ramshackle crew, after facing the fact that they accidentally incinerated Earth and murdered billions of people, must make contact with the alien race inhabiting the Dyson’s Sphere and attempt to survive, ironically making this humanity’s first contact with an alien life-form while 99.9% of the human race is now slowly-cooling plasma and space dust. As if that wasn’t enough, a smugly superior (and very lonely) world-spanning AI becomes interested in the crew and the Fermi; and the spaceships’ FTL drive is powering up again and can’t be shut down, meaning the Dyson’s Sphere is also likely to be incinerated if the crew can’t shut it down. As I noted, it’s a pretty grim scenario, but Farnell leavens it with some fantastically subtle and dark humour that turns it into a kind of alternate version of Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, although one where the consequences are much more concrete and far more devastating in nature.
The humorous, planet-spanning plot is assisted by the way in which Farnell populates Dyson’s Fear with a delightfully eclectic, imaginative and above-all memorable cast of characters both human, inhuman and artificial. The core crew of the Fermi are a delight to watch as they interact with each other on the Sphere and with the AI, while we get those flashbacks into just how they made it onto the vessel in time to survive the apocalypse. I was particularly fond of Samson, the final, perfected product of a secretive genetics programme run single-handedly by a bizarre genius scientist in an abandoned coastal fort off the coast of Britain. Suave, self-assured and a brutally-capable combat machine, Samson brings along his brother Connor – completely ordinary in every way – to both demonstrate to his deceased creator that humanity does not need to be relentlessly perfected in order to survive in the galaxy, and also to act as a control group for any space-based scenarios they may encounter. We also get to see Connor’s complex relationship with a brother that is his superior in every possible way, and refuses to abandon him despite Connor having absolutely no skills that could contribute to the Fermi’s mission in any concievable manner. In addition, Farnell fortunately also also provides the viewpoints of the aliens themselves in the form of Bountiful Shore, one of the prawn-like aliens on the sphere, and a retired ambassador now specialising in culinary experimentation. She’s called back to duty to deal with the astronauts from the Fermi who claim – impossibly – to be from beyond the sphere and match nothing ever seen before. Her attempts to communicate with the astronauts are quietly hilarious, and the worldbuilding that develops as her character is explored is genuinely fascinating and speaks well to Farnell’s capabilities as an author. Farnell even manages to imbue the Fermi – with its mysterious FTL drive and strange machinery that the crew barely understand themselves – with a certain mystique and atmosphere, to the extent that it almost becomes character itself.
Dyson’s Fear expertly blends together fast-paced, streamlined prose, an action-packed and often highly intriguing plot, and a deliciously dark and often subversive sense of humour to create a unique, engaging and highly memorable slice of scifi comedy. The novella is one of those rare works of comedic fiction that actually manages to be funny and amusing instead of simply claiming to do so, and author Chris Farnell demonstrates an incredible ability to combine that humorous writing with a tremendous and prodigious imagination for crafting alien worlds, while combining that with some intriging and thought-provoking takes on humanity’s purpose in life, cosmic evolution and even gender roles in a clash of intergalactic cultures. Taken all together, Dyson’s Fear is an absolutely superb introduction to Farnell’s Fermi’s Progress series, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in high-quality science-fiction and/or humourous fiction.