[reprinted from Onder Magazine Issue#2]
Steve Stanton’s novel, Freenet, from ECW Press, published in April of 2016, is a modern mash-up of two science fiction cornerstones: portals and cyber-connectivity. In the novel, humans have developed the “Macpherson Doorway” – a folded space-time portal that immediately catapults travelers into a galaxy that is both extremely distant, and millions of years into the future. Returning through the doorway is forbidden, and traffic is policed by a quarantine to prevent DNA altered by the environment on New Jerusalem from contaminating Earth’s population. All of the humans in the colonies are continuously connected to a network known as the V-net, a source of knowledge, commerce, and entertainment.
Stanton tells the tale in three voices, guiding the reader on a journey similar to the ones taken through the Macpherson Doorway. From each of the three main characters’ perspectives, the reader witnesses events through differing lenses, uprooted from the comfort of a favorite reading chair into environments so foreign and yet so astoundingly cool that one can’t help but wish they could buy a portal ticket.
Part one is told from the point of view of an omnidroid named Simara. She’s a special breed of human who’s deigned to be wholly immersed in the V-net. When she crash lands on Bali, a mining colony where wireless signals cannot penetrate due to solar flares and geomagnetic storms, she’s forced to navigate in the real world without access to the V-net for the first time in her life.
A “handsome grounder boy” and scavenger named Zen rescues Simara from his section of Bali’s badlands, and quickly steps into the role of her guide and interpreter. Everything about Zen is strange and oddly sexual, especially when he bathes Simara, feeds, her, and nurses her back to health. The young man remains attentive and informative, ever at the ready with advice and comfort whenever the disconnected omnidroid is scared or frustrated by the silence in her head.
Bali is a hostile planet where humans barely scrape out a life for themselves. The locals dwell in caves to survive in their toxic environment. Everything outside will kill a human, from the cactus spores that clog and nest in the lungs, to the scorpions that crawl under clothes, to the dinosaur-like sand lizards. In fact, the planet is so toxic that humans don’t breed there since “babies don’t survive.”
Before the two youths venture out to salvage what remains of Simara’s crashed escape pod, they must lather-up with an oily black goo that is part pest control and part sunscreen. I can only guess that Stanton’s inspiration for the necessities of the guck is fueled by the thick and voracious hordes of blackflies and mosquitoes that are particularly tenacious in a northern Ontario spring, the region of Canada that Stanton calls home.
The theme of part one is discovery. The young omidroid woman experiences the claustrophobic discomfort of a breather, endures the chafing dust and crawling scorpions, and encounters a sand lizard, dodging under cover whenever the helicopters fly over, searching for any evidence of her crashed pod.
After the salvage, they head to the nearest city which is built under a mountain, arriving during Vishan, a huge religion-based holiday party where the clans come together to celebrate and honor Kiva. During Vishan, Zen and Simara’s lives intertwine, pressuring Zen to leave Bali with his “skyfall princess” and venture off-world for the first time.
From the moment that the story moves off Bali, part two begins and the narrative switches to Zen’s point of view. The theme of this section is wonder and is chock-full of classic science fiction adventure. Zen’s identity switches from backwards country boy to astronaut, riding on a launch couch, experiencing the frustration of moving his body in a zero gravity environment, and eating paste from tubes that, in his mind, hardly count as food at all. The young man becomes acutely aware of his limited knowledge, and the backward nature of Bali’s social constructs.
Since everyone in space is linked to the V-net, Zen arranges to have his own ear bug installed. Nurse Nancy, who performs the procedure, becomes his guide, teaching Zen how to maintain his sense of self while he learns to regulate the torrent of information that suddenly and relentlessly fills his mind.
Once Simara reestablishes her connection to the V-net, she and Zen part ways. Through a series of events, they both end up on the same troopship. Unfortunately for the omnidroid, the jacked-in young woman’s past catches up to her, and in what can only be described as an edge-of-your-seat thrill-ride, she and Zen crash land on Cromeus.
On the new planet, part three begins, and the narrative switches to Roni Hendrik’s point of view. He’s a “media darling” and the host of The Daily Buzz, a V-net show filmed in New Jerusalem that is part news, part entertainment, and part tabloid indulgence. Roni and his Executive Editor, Gladyz van-Dam, latch onto Zen and Simara’s story like ticks, tracking the two foreigners while Simara recovers in hospital from her harrowing crash.
The theme of part three is inquisition and Stanton succeeds at what all good Science Fiction authors aim to accomplish: analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of our own human failings through the lens of others. As Roni Hendrick looks for sound bites and dramatic beats that play to what he deems the love story between Zen and Simara, the host traverses dangerous paths that lead him to ponder the limits of morality, privacy, and legacy on this side of the Macpherson Doorway.
Freenet is like a sandwich of thrills and wonder, with a thick filling of inquisitive analysis, and a dollop of fun. Take a trip through Stanton’s portal, strap into an accelerator couch, and gaze out the window at the worlds he’s created.