Saturday, April 03, 2021

Review: Penumbra by Dan Ackerman

Penumbra
is a clever novel and not what I was expecting based on the previous books by Dan Ackerman that I've read, which admittedly is not their full back catalogue, although I'm working on it. The world Ackerman narrates is so complex, so different yet familiar. For this reason, there is no need for blatant world-building up front, and I'm delighted Ackerman doesn't insult the reader by going down that route. We know how capitalism works, how inherited privilege persists unchallenged. So we're thrown into the thick of reality on Eden - a space station carrying potentially all that's left of humankind - ruled by Arden, a young, entitled, drug-dependent autarch, all of which are understandable given he inherited the responsibility and Eden is unsustainable.

What I've said so far doesn't reveal much more than is given in the blurb. Of course, there's all the technology that goes with the setting of a self-sufficient space station, most of which is within the realms of the existing sci-fi canon and very much not in need of further explanation. However, it's not the setting or the technology that is at the heart of this novel; it's the society.

The playing out of power dichotomies - the transitions and shifts between the personal, social, societal, governmental - between Arden, Rhys and other predominant characters made this one of the most engaging stories I've ever read. I'm a social scientist (day job) and a socialist who usually reads escapist fiction - lighthearted, romantic, comedic, maybe some unrealistic crime-solving, nothing too dark or thought-provoking - and in truth, I rarely pick up a book like Penumbra because a) I don't do well with sci-fi in written form, and b) it's a bit of a busman's holiday reading about social structures and systems. There are few authors capable of engaging and keeping my interest for an entire novel of this kind, but Dan Ackerman can.

I enjoyed seeing Arden grow and heal - there's an element of redemption to his story, although it's less about redeeming himself than his ancestors. I also enjoyed his casual disregard for social hierarchy, some of which is down to his naivety, but Arden's morality and sense of justice are there from the outset, or that was my impression. He merely needed a call to action.

The relationships didn't pan out the way I wanted them to (really, really wanted them to), but by the end, I'd spent so much in-between-reading time trying to come up with ways of making it work without the power imbalance (which shifts so brilliantly from one player to another) that ultimately, Penumbra concludes the best way it could, all considered. But I finished reading it about a month ago (I was lucky enough to receive an advance review copy), and I still can't stop thinking about it.

So that was a bit abstract, as it always is, trying to review without spoilers. I'd love to discuss the intricacies of this novel further - I may even set up a GR discussion! For now, I'll take my hat off to Dan Ackerman and recommend this book to...well, everyone.

Buy Penumbra:

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