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Dead Space by Kali Wallace4 stars
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Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsUnless you’re a total science fiction newbie, it should be obvious that nobody working on a remote asteroid mining station is going to be up to any good. And can you blame them? You’re millions of miles from human civilization, the workload is tedious, the AI has a suspiciously soft and gentle voice, the crew is tiny and most likely includes no one you want to hook up with (especially that one guy who spends all his downtime gazing out of a porthole into the cosmos and muttering things like “Can you hear it? It’s calling to me…”), and finally there’s the ever-present anxiety that you’ll be wandering some dark cavern deep within the asteroid all by yourself when you’ll come upon a creepy-looking egg thing. Or you might just be murdered the old fashioned way. People are bound to go a little crazy!

In Dead Space — which has no association with the video game franchise of the same name — Kali Wallace has not given us those recycled clichés, thankfully, but she has crafted an intelligent and gripping mystery-space-opera-action-thriller that makes excellent use of its setting and offers a protagonist working through deep emotional trauma while being thrust into a terrifying situation even a person in full control of their emotional health would probably find too much to handle.

Hester Marley once had a bright and promising career as a leading expert in the field of artificial intelligence. Her pride and joy was the Vanguard AI that she developed for the first crewed mission to explore Titan. But that mission met with catastrophe at the hands of terrorists who had infiltrated the crew, leaving Hester one of only a small handful of survivors. Hester was recovered and extensively patched up by Parthenope Enterprises, which provided her new prosthetic limbs and an artificial eye, leaving her in turn with massive medical debt she is having to work off. Her friends and crewmates, her dreams of scientific discovery, and most heartbreakingly Vanguard, the culmination of her life’s work — all lost in the attack.

Heartless, amoral corporations that think only of profits with a cold indifference to worker well-being and safety aren’t exactly the most original or challenging of villains, either in science fiction or real life. Heck, a lot of folks literally order the books they read from just such a corporation. But Wallace still finds a way to offer some sobering commentary that avoids shallow, finger-wagging polemics. Hester has been forced to enter a situation very much like indentured servitude to Parthenope, which includes a whole raft of legal restrictions regarding the proprietary technology used to fix her up. Rather than making use of her AI expertise, they’ve shunted her into a low-level security job on the asteroid habitat Hygiea. The individual has no power against the might of a corporate titan, and Parthenope forcing Hester into a lousy option simply by making sure every other option they offered her was even lousier is only one of the factors prolonging Hester’s ongoing anxiety and depression. They may have repaired her physical condition, after a fashion, but it’s all taken a toll on her mental condition.

Still, Hester is not one to wallow in self-pity. When she receives an unexpected and extremely cryptic personal message from David Prussenko, one of her fellow Titan survivors, only to learn very soon after that he’s been brutally murdered, Hester immediately volunteers to join the team traveling to the remote asteroid mining station of Nimue to investigate the crime.

David was killed, of course, because he discovered something very sketchy taking place deep within the bowels of the asteroid mine. What adds to the mystery is that David himself managed to disable all station surveillance for the hour during which he was killed, effectively helping to cover up his own murder in advance. Was he tricked, and by whom? In the tradition of all good mysteries, everyone is a suspect, and the station crew is certainly full of oddballs, none of whom seems to be especially worried for their own safety considering one of them must be the killer. Experienced mystery readers won’t find some of the revelations too surprising, but Wallace does add exciting layers to the narrative that build on her universe, flesh out the backstory, and allow for some very clever and well-timed surprises.

As a lover of any story set in some grimy industrial hellhole in the darkest depths of space, Dead Space really impressed me with Wallace’s tactile and immersive evocation of Nimue Station itself. It’s all got just the right oppressive mood, and once we’re on Nimue, the action all unfolds within a single day, allowing the tension to ramp up very quickly as Hester uncovers one secret after another while trying to keep herself and as much of the rest of the crew as she can alive. There’s one brilliant scene when Hester realizes she has no choice but to travel across the surface of the asteroid outside the station, a prospect that floods her with pure terror.

If Wallace could have done anything differently, there ought to have been more depth to the supporting characters. The narrative is single-minded in its focus on Hester’s point of view, leaving pretty much everyone else a cipher dropped into a stock role. But the resolution satisfies, and it delivers Hester to a place that probably can’t be called peace, but definitely schadenfreude. And you know, that’s just as good.