“…It bordered Norlonto in a high-intensity contrast between freedom and slavery, war and peace, ignorance and strength. Which was which depended on whose side you were on.”
Another world war and multiple revolutions set the stage for The Star Fraction. The world is balkanized, allowing for many different factions and groups to claim space, their ideological viewpoints fermenting in a cycle that merely shuffles power around in the same oppressive structures we see today; albeit taken to radicalized extremes in most cases.
Moh Kohn lives in a commune, a co-op in which the mercenaries run protection details for a number of different groups, some of which are described as terrorists, only legalized. There’s a standard operating procedure and rules of engagement for these situations, but it’s overshadowed by a hefty amount of politics. Which the fiction attempts to expose and condemn the viewpoints of by taking them to their logical conclusion in which not much actually changes.
“White-hot needles stabbed through his eyes into his head, into his brain: a new environment for the information viruses, where they replicated, forming snarls of complex logic that entangled him, clanking mechanisms that pursued him from one thought to another, down corridors of memory and forgotten rooms of days.”
When Kohn stumbles into a scientist, Janis, who has inadvertently created a drug which allows for vivid recall of memories, they trigger a cascading series of events that have the makings of a revolution, the resurgence of Kohn’s past, and the activation of an A.I previously only rumored, the Watchmaker. Of course, it also catalyzes other factions as they vie to come out on top of a powder keg ready to go up at any minute.
The most interesting thing about The Star Fraction for me was Kohn’s past interwoven into the narrative, giving context to the ideological viewpoints of the other factions at the same time as explaining why Kohn is so disenchanted with each of them. The super identities created by peoples’ affiliations parallels the scarification and horrendous nature of war, touched upon often.
“He made himself as small as possible behind the parapet, holding the gun awkwardly above it, and aimed by the screensight image patched to his glades. His trigger finger pressed Enter. The weapon took over, it aimed him. In a second the head-up image showed four bodies, sprawled, stapled down like X- and Y- chromosomes.”
After all, this is a future in which Kohn’s customized and advanced gun aims him. Instead of a deck, his weapon is the main point of contact for everything that matters to him. His livelihood, his connection to others through this worlds’ cyberspace equivalent. He even talks to it like it’s a companion from time to time. And why not. The youth here put bullets behind their ideologies and rebellions. Grown men just boys with a past pushed from their minds, pulling triggers until they’re used up. In many ways, Kohn’s gun makes far more sense than the typical image of a deck or computer tower.
“Terror has to be random...that's how to really break people, when they don't know what rules to follow to keep them out of trouble.”
It doesn’t matter how old you are. Ultimately, in The Star Fraction, only substantive changes come from solutions divorced from humanity. It’s an unsatisfying end, positioning itself to no ideological viewpoint because, when extrapolated, they serve only to reinforce oppressive power structures. Religion, communism, capitalism; the fiction is obsessive about talking about various aspects of them, but in the end, not much of it actually matters. The flow of the book is often stymied by it, or the withholding of catharsis might have similarly mattered. The twists and turns do it credit, though. The implications of the ending are the most interesting notions it puts forward and truly novel, in my experience.
“...maybe we can do better than this. And to ask yourself: where's the vulnerable point in this multiple-choice totalitarianism? It seems...seamless. What can an individual do against it?... I suggest that you doubt, disobey, desert. Particularly if you are called upon to fight against those who insist, against all the evidence, that we are one people.”
Content Warning for spoilers from this point onward. You have been warned!
From the very beginning, it turns out, the gun, a unique A.I awakened at an undetermined time, yet certainly given the final spark by the death of Moh Khan, was behind everything. The omnipresence orchestrating all of the death, including the protagonist, in service to a lasting change outside the grasp of human hands. We were told so from the beginning, actually. After all Khan’s gun aimed him from the very first confrontation. It had him stumble onto the memory drug to find out what it needed; helped the other A.I attempting to further a human’s agenda be killed; and positioned the other characters, Jordan and Cat, to help it/him do so. Believing it would be what Khan wanted. Based on the assimilation of Khan’s memories and other data as he was linked to the gun at death.
“...I want to attack all these cults and ideologies. I have this, this vision that life could be better if only people could see how things really are. That it's your one life. It's yours, you have this inexhaustible universe to live it in and God damn it isn't that enough? Why do we have to wander around in these invented worlds of our own devising, these false realities that are just clutter, dross, dirt on the lens?--all these beliefs and identities that people throw away their real lives for.”
If the gun is to be believed, anyway. Since it is also the narrator of the story, introducing an unreliable narrator at the end. The sometimes-strange amount of time spent on factions is more interesting at that. If it’s all a fiction to justify the action, coloring the humanness of these ideologies and interactions as the downfall of true peace and revolution. It’s believable that it would be something with a hint of humanity in it but the inhumanity also, to allow for its “brothers and sisters”, so to speak, to die, as well as Kohn. Who would allow for such a thing but a weapon pointed at a human that needed more than Kohn to fire this particular bullet?
“The screen blazed with the light of recognition. The eyes met yes the Is met the answer sparkled so it was you all the time and it was a seen joke a laugh a tickling tumble a gendered engendering of a second self a you-and-me-baby from AI-and-I to I-and-I.
There was a flowering, and a seeding: a reflection helpless to stop itself reflecting again and again in multiple mirrors.
The stars threw down their spears.
Someone smiled. His work to see.
The connection broke.”