On a generation ship, no one can hear you scream.
That’s what Oichi and Medusa would like you to believe. Aboard Olympia, the pair of them acts in concert, twining together through the ship, finding ample places to hide on a vessel large enough to house a civilization. Oichi was once a free woman onboard Titania, the Olympia‘s sister ship. She’s the daughter of two renowned scientists whose work in cybernetics gave her special implants, filled with music and granting her access to higher education. When Titania is blown up by the Executives, the ruling class overseeing the two ships, Oichi is destined to become a “worm,” one of the servicers who navigates the many tunnels deep below the hull of Olympia. Oichi is resigned to her fate—and then she meets Medusa, an artificial intelligence housed in a mass of coiling and metallic tendrils with a mask in the shape of a woman’s face at their center. When Oichi’s implants allow her to bond with Medusa, she sees an opportunity to discover the connection between the death of her parents and the existence of Medusa and her sister units, and to figure out what their work had to do with the Executives’ decision to destroy the Titania. With Medusa’s help, and her own growing ruthlessness and resourcefulness, Oichi Angelis sets forth on a mission of revenge.
Emily Devenport is no stranger to science fiction, having been nominated for the Philip K. Dick award for her novel Broken Time (originally published under a pseudonym) and eight other books; in Medusa Uploaded, her first novel in more than a decade (an expansion of a novelette first published in Clarkesworld Magazine in 2015), she dives deep into the guts: of genre tropes, of ships, of societies, of technology, and, most importantly, of people. From tunnels deep within the Olympia, to its lofty towers, she provides a survey of the strata her characters inhabit. The massive ship is filled with high ranking Executives and, below them, literally everyone else—but the ship is truly powered by the worms, whose lives, including their physical senses, are controlled in every way by the Executives. Having lost everything, Oichi seems destined to a life of control, sexual abuse, and harassment, but her bond with Medusa, whose intelligence (and exoskeleton) become key in Oichi’s plans for revolution. It isn’t a hard to see why Oichi would want to overturn a system built upon radical abuse, but Devenport sells it anyway; the grim reality of what life on the ship looks like for its least powerful denizens is never turned from.
Devenport is adept at twining and turning through her own narrative; like the coil of Medusa’s tendrils, the story slips and slithers along: each major reveal brings new complications, and characters who’ve been lurking in the shadows come into the light at just the right time. Every chapter builds tension, as snatches of backstory and history are released as if on timers; every time you think you’ve got a handle on the setting and the stakes, Devenport pulls off another game-changing reveal.
The clockwork precision of the narrative and the depth of the universe-building wouldn’t mean as much if we didn’t care about the characters, but Oichi Angelis is a fascinating, complicated lead, brutal and clever enough to outwit every foe, but sometimes too smart for her own good. Reeling from, and shaped by, grief and trauma, raging against the injustice she sees every day, Oichi isn’t hard to root for, even when she does employ violent justice of her own. The ethical line Oichi and Medusa walk together is as slippery as the twists and turns of the narrative. And while Oichi can be stone cold and complicated, Medusa is bright and curious, a machine mindthat learns and grows along with Oichi, and provides needed relief from the unbearable tension of the narrative.
If you enjoy science fiction that makes you ask hard questions of yourself and humanity, that immerses you in a world from top to bottom, that offers violence, intrigue, and a just a touch of the alien, Medusa Uploaded is likely to satisfy, even as it leaves you unsettled. It left me very curious about the future of Oichi, Medusa, and the Olympia.