"Echoes of Earth," Sean Williams, Shane Dix

Pros: Unusual concepts; interesting character development; solid plot
Cons: Dialogue that didn’t ring true; characters making connections that didn’t make sense; difficult to relate to some of the plot
Rating: 3 out of 5

First published 6/20/2003

In an attempt to find habitable worlds, Earth of 2050 launched survey ships to a host of potentially habitable worlds. Of course they didn’t have the resources to send thousands of people into space, so they sent their engrams–essentially, recordings of their personalities and reasoning faculties. They didn’t have to feed an engram or give it oxygen, it didn’t get as bored on a decades-long trip, and it took up a lot less space, after all. Shortly after the engrams left home, however, they lost contact with Earth.

The Frank Tipler was a survey ship that took roughly 100 years to reach its destination. Peter Alander is the engram of, well, Peter Alander, a generalist sent along to coordinate different aspects of the research going on. Unfortunately, he’s developed a flaw. In an attempt to keep him sane and operational, the other engrams have allowed him the use of an android body.

Then the Spinners arrive. The Spinners are an alien race, and they’ve decided to hand out some of their cast-off technology in the form of “Gifts.” These Gifts could propel humanity forward by leaps and bounds, but the crew of the Tipler is going to need humanity’s help to figure them out. Unfortunately, they still haven’t been able to reestablish communication with Earth, even using the brand-new faster-than-light communicator they’ve been given. So they decide to use their new little FTL ship to go have a chat with Earth. For various reasons, Peter Alander is the one sent to check in with humanity.

Unfortunately he finds some pretty unusual things when he gets there–it appears that in a very unusual cataclysm, humanity hit a radical turning point and now is nothing like what he remembers. And to make matters worse, he’s just lost contact with the Tipler…

The Good

There are some fascinating concepts in Sean Williams and Shane Dix’s “Echoes of Earth.” Engrams, humanity, souls, AI–it all coalesces into a wonderful and relatively low-key exploration of what it means to be human, alien, and machine. I enjoyed the unusual turns humanity had taken, particularly contrasted with the engrams. In a way, Peter spent his time with the Tipler feeling like a bad photocopy, only to come home and find that in some ways, he was more human than the things left behind.

This is an interesting book with an engrossing and unusual plot. The characters are intriguing, and for once, the character development, in part, was the hard SF of the book, and I found that fascinating. I’m too often accustomed to seeing something of a tension between character development and concept development in hard SF books, and it was delightful to find them so interwoven here.

The Not-So-Great

For all that I enjoyed the characters and their development, they still fell a little flat at times. Characters were just too annoying sometimes. Or Person A would say one thing, and Person B would reply with something that just didn’t seem to follow, in my mind–some of the dialogue didn’t ring true. And once or twice it felt like characters all-too-conveniently made or failed to make connections in ways that didn’t make sense to me, just because the plot called for it or the authors didn’t happen to think of something that leapt out at me as obvious.

Keep in mind, though, that these were very occasional flaws, not constant things, so I don’t think of them as deal-breakers.

While the details of humanity’s evolution (I don’t want to give this stuff away) were interesting, they were–perhaps understandably–difficult to relate to. So when Alander got to Earth, I started to feel a little more removed from the story.

And finally, the ending seemed unbalanced. The action following the climax felt too long for a denouement, yet it offered no new resolutions of its own. Certainly it set the stage for a follow-on book, although thankfully it didn’t end in a cliffhanger.

All in all I enjoyed “Echoes of Earth,” and I would probably read more by Williams and Dix. Someone who is more enchanted with SF concepts and less obsessed with character consistency than I am would likely enjoy this book more than I did, but that doesn’t make it unreadable for people like me. The plot is original, interesting, and enjoyable, and the characters are worth spending time with.

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