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Paradise-1 by David Wellington1.5 stars

Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsIf every reader’s big worry in the 2020s is that generative AI will take over such creative pursuits as art and writing, it must be said that Paradise-1, a wannabe space opera/horror mashup by David Wellington (presumably a human), is exactly the kind of soulless, mechanical exercise that reads as if it was spouted out of a machine. I’m thinking specifically of those very old school computers from the ’80s that used obnoxiously loud dot-matrix printers.

Wellington actually wrote this book after being given the basic idea by his editor at Orbit. Several other members of the publishing team chimed in with input as well. So Paradise-1, while not created by a machine, was created more or less by a committee. And does it ever show in the finished result! The book runs an absurd 677 pages, though it reads briskly, thanks to being broken up into chapters of mostly two to four pages each, like a James Patterson product.

But the story is shallower than an inflatable kiddie pool. It simply doesn’t have the substance to support the book’s length, meaning that most of it is padded out by a series of lumbering, repetitive action scenes that feel more enervating than exciting. The result is this paradoxical beast of a book that is both fast-paced and, at the same time, feels like it’s never going to end. It has an episodic structure that strongly suggests Orbit might have its eye on selling this as another hit streaming series after The Witcher. Most insultingly, after nearly 700 pages of tedious bombast, instead of giving us an ending, the book simply stops. Literally, it stops mid-scene with a “To Be Continued” tag. I have suffered bad books before, but here I really think I should qualify for workman’s comp.

The story opens promisingly on Ganymede, where Alexandra Petrova, an agent with a military police outfit called Firewatch, is poised to arrest a man suspected of being the most prolific serial killer on the entire moon. But his real situation is very different, and Petrova learns right away that she has unknowingly interfered in a wide-reaching Firewatch investigation. This is a blow to Petrova’s career, because she’s already unpopular among her fellow agents for being a nepo baby. Her mother, Ekaterina, was the former director of Firewatch, but she was not exactly confident in her daughter’s skills either.

For her sins, Petrova is reassigned to a distant colony planet, Paradise-1, which has mysteriously gone dark. Traveling with her is the pilot, Sam Parker, with whom she once had a brief fling, and Zhang Lei, a doctor whose previous post was the colony on Titan. Following what’s described as a psychotic break, Zhang now has to wear a drug-dispensing bracelet. Probably not anyone’s first choice for a medical officer, but Zhang has very good reasons for his emotional problems.

To cut a very, very long story short, no sooner has their vessel entered the Paradise-1 system than they are attacked. It turns out that there are well over 100 Earth vessels in orbit around the planet, ranging from colony transports large enough to carry ten thousand passengers, to military ships, to cargo carriers. And every single one of them has had their onboard AIs, and in turn their crews, infected by an alien lifeform of some kind that Zhang calls the basilisk. The basilisk is a kind of memetic contagion. It can affect both artificial and human intelligence, making its victims deeply delusional, though never in exactly the same way. On one ship, the crew is afflicted by an insatiable hunger so powerful they’ll just eat anything, including each other and themselves, making them basically zombies. Another crew form themselves into a bizarre cult living in absolute darkness, convinced that light itself is evil.

Yes, I know — this sounds like a premise that no one could possibly screw up. But Paradise-1 simply can’t pull off anything it tries, and it tries almost everything, right up to the good old kitchen sink. Every time it wants to be scary, it’s goofy. All of its characters, including our heroes, are types more than fully believable people. They’re likable, they endure much, and we’re sympathetic, but there’s very little depth or development to them beyond cliché tragic backstories. Petrova’s character just bounces back and forth as Wellington needs her to. In one scene, she’ll be the brave, determined action hero; in the next, a helpless shrinking violet in need of rescue.

Wellington’s choices regarding character affect the book’s tone. It’s hard to sustain tension and fear when you’re hearing constant wisecracks from the ship’s robot, Rapscallion, who acts like Bender from Futurama. Even worse is what becomes of the shipboard AIs that are infected by the basilisk. Wellington had plenty of chances to shift the horror content here right to warp speed. But instead of the “endless terror” promised by the book’s cover, what we encounter is a parade of Disney cartoon villains. What the book does with one of the infected AIs named Eurydice is so mind-blowingly silly that I’m thinking Orbit might have made a wiser move marketing Paradise-1 as a spoof or a comedy.

To his credit, Wellington is aware that in order to get us on board for this story, we’re going to have to swallow some huge implausibilities. His solution is to hang lampshades on the most glaring of them, so that we can at least see that questions are being addressed, if not answered. But we’re still expected to believe that over a fourteen-month period, 115 spacecraft carrying probably up to 100,000 personnel and colonists have vanished, and that the government back on Earth has succeeded in keeping it all under wraps by “faking comms” from the colony. Honestly, that’s so dumb it could only be believed by your conspiracy-theory loving crazy uncle that everyone else in the family hopes will be too busy to come to Thanksgiving dinner this year. I mean unless the story is set in some Star Trek post-capitalist future (and there’s nothing in the text to suggest it is), the disappearance of that many ships and cargo and warm bodies is both going to be a humanitarian crisis and send global markets into a tailspin. But even that’s not quite as dumb as asking us to believe that this same government, once they decided they might have a real problem on their hands, chose to send one more ship, hoping that one person on board that ship will figure everything out.

These are all just embarrassing problems that would sink far less ambitious novels. But I think what will turn off most readers is the sense of being caught in an endless grind, in which each new “terrifying” encounter or escape from near-certain death our heroes experience is overblown and exhausting rather than thrilling. You know how successful action-adventure stories are referred to as roller-coaster rides? Paradise-1 is more like a treadmill, where you do thousands and thousands of steps while never actually going anywhere. Paradise-1? More like Paradise Lost… in Space.

Followed by Revenant-X.