Saturday, March 02, 2013

"Nightrider" - David Mace (1985)

From "Nightrider", page 30.

"The crew were Nightrider’s helpers, were decision counsellors and tactic teachers, were mission book components second only in importance to Nightrider itself. Without Nightrider, of course, the mission book stalled. 

Apart from the Lander team’s small arms, Nightrider currently had only one weapon. The main hull was completely enclosed in a girdle of huge expendable pods containing thousands of tonnes of deuterium-tritium propellant feed pellets. Four of the pods were nothing more than propellant tanks, four more were propellant tanks with through-flow fusion reactors mounted — four monstrously powerful rockets that could exert a continuous 10g thrust. 

Such high-gee manoeuvrability might prove to be as valuable tactically as the drive invisibility on target approach was strategically, but that was not the purpose of the fusion boosters. The combined plasma jet, a searing flood of charged ions and massive neutron flux and sheer sun heat, was a weapon trailing torching kilometres of absolute lethality. 

Nightrider was the first of a new class, the first ever purpose-built war machine of space."

Earth is picking itself up after the long collapse under its new Pragmatic Rationalist government. It's about to take space back from the Outsiders - the space colonists of the asteroid belt, the gas giant moons and Hel, an earth-sized planet orbiting the Sun's binary partner Hades, a nova-remnant way outside Pluto's orbit.

It’s known that the Outsiders have a new base on Hel and Nightrider's mission is to utterly destroy it prior to Earth colonising the system itself. Nightrider has a "graviton drive" which delivers 0.25g continuous: its entry into the Hades system should be unobservable. The plan is to slingshot round Hel, line up on the enemy base and take it out with fusion fire. Drop the Lander to mop up if necessary and retrieve Intel. What could possibly go wrong?

As Nightrider enters orbit, it's pinged by a 2 millisecond burst of scanning radar. Somewhere in the vicinity is an armed Outsider ship and Nightrider's just been detected. Suddenly the mission is in peril.

Nightrider is a highly autonomous AI system with a 'psychostructure' built around the Mission Book. The only reason for the presence of the two pilots, Sandra and Shapir, is to train Nightrider to think more creatively as regards mission tactics. The other five crew: Akira and Yasmin, the soldiers; Kim, Samson and Ali, the technical specialists, are there to fly and crew the Lander - an opportunistic and ultimately disposable mission segment. But who is ultimately in command - the human crew or the Nightrider AI?

This classic SF novel starts, like "Alien", with a deceptive languor. The pilots wake from long sleep, check their entry into the Hades system, review the equipment, chat and make love. Gradually, things start to happen and the complex battle begins. Like all David Mace's work, behind the manifest plot lurks the presence of a malign military-industrial complex, a bureaucratic force which trusts machines and does not trust humans to behave as proper mission components.

I don't understand why this excellent, gripping novel has not had the enthusiastic reception it so clearly deserves. It's well-written, exciting (once the action begins) and Mace's grim message, the bankruptcy of the "Pragmatic Rationalism" which the crew mostly sign-up to, is shown not told.

This book, along with the author's "Fire Lance", deserves to be on every SF reader's bookshelf - rather than out-of-print.