Some time ago, I finished reading the second book in the Verge of Desolation series by J. D. Harpley, Revolt. It is a direct sequel to The Mill, which I reviewed earlier and you can check out here. To read a quick summary of the novel and my overall opinion, keep reading below if you don't mind spoilers.
The story picks up exactly where The Mill left off, only that this time, we're following the adventures of Hopper, who was Jen's friend in the parallel universe. Hopper is making her way back home after Jen's departure back to her own reality when she encounters a mysterious newcomer in town about to be mugged by a group of troublesome youths. Hopper, eager to play the hero, steps in and intervenes, rescuing the man by putting her new cyborg enhancements to use. Hopper has survived alone in a hostile world by distrusting everyone, and our story begins when, against her better judgment, she decides to invite this man to her home, as he is clearly unfamiliar with the area and apparently apt to get into trouble.
Upon reaching her well-guarded abode, Hopper and the newcomer, named Ravin, discover that Hopper is actually still recovering from her recent modifications, and the fight has disturbed the healing process. It was only through adrenaline that she was able to continue functioning without noticing the pain. Now that she's returned home, she quickly becomes sick and debilitated, which makes her very nervous in the presence of a stranger she has just let into her house. To her great surprise, Ravin claims to be a surgeon and immediately wishes to lay her down and stitch up her wounds. Hopper is extremely reluctant, but realizing her situation, she concedes and allows him to treat her.
Hopper passes out from the pain and injuries to take some time to heal. When she awakes, she is very surprised and confused to find out that she wasn't taken advantage of and that Ravin is still there making sure she is okay. I've touched quite a bit on this opening setup because I feel it does a great job of fleshing out Hopper as a character, which was one of my biggest complaints with The Mill. We get to see the kind of world she has grown up in, and the kind of paranoid, cautious person it has molded her into. It also brings a lot more depth to the world itself. In The Mill, the world felt more like a convenient backdrop to tell the story of Jen's emotional journey, but not a whole lot about the world was explained or experienced. Again, these opening scenes give us a peak of how normal people in this world live, which really helps to make things feel more real.
As Hopper and Ravin converse and get to know each other, we discover that Ravin is actually an android, which again, immediately causes Hopper great concern given her recent experiences in The Mill. But as it turns out, Ravin escaped The Mill himself (or at least an equivalent facility somewhere else in the country, as they appear to be controlled by a nation-wide corporation). He is very determined to release all of the androids still stuck in the mills across the nation, granting them freedom as a people, but he is also reluctant to share much detail about his plan or origins. There is still some element of distrust, but both Hopper and the reader are drawn into trusting Ravin, as he feels like a guy with good intentions.
Hopper agrees to help Ravin on his quest for freedom, even though she expresses some concern over an android revolution killing off all humans afterwards. The general level of trust between Hopper and Ravin is the focus of most of the story as they break into The Mill that Hopper just came from to plant the breakout software in a future patch for the androids. Hopper is inexplicably infatuated with Ravin as a person, but at the same time, isn't quite sure of his motives, origins, and general trustworthiness. She struggles with the idea of whether or not he might actually be from The Mill in some convoluted attempt to trick her, but at the same time, she is falling in love with him.
I'm not really the kind of person who reads love stories at all, but in this case, I think it worked it well. It really made sense as a way of telling the story. We experience everything from Hopper's perspective, and throughout the story, we slowly gain more and more information (and disinformation) about Ravin's past, and sometimes information about Hopper herself which she didn't know. It makes it easy to relate to Hopper, as the information takes both her and the reader on a roller coaster, wavering between wanting to trust Ravin, and thinking he might, by a plot-twist, be the bad guy.
Ravin being an android also helped to bolster my opinion of the story. As both a libertarian and a computer scientist, I'm a big fan of anything related to AI and their place in society as people. Equality is one of the most important aspects of a free society, and as a science fiction fan, I have no problem accepting any entity which meets the requirements of consciousness as a person with rights, regardless of physical form or appearance. It's important to distinguish between the ghost and the shell, but that's a different topic which I may write an article on later. What's important here is that Hopper is able to accept Ravin as both a person and a love-interest despite being an android.
Back to the events of the story. I haven't explicitly stated it yet, buy you may have picked up that Ravin's, and now Hopper's plan is to upload software to the androids that will allow them to break free of their controlling regulations by the corporation which exploits them and makes them do all the terrible things in The Mill. Unfortunately, the software has to be planted at each individual location manually to avoid detection, and then activated remotely from the central servers.
One of the biggest twists of the story comes when we find out that the dictator in charge of the evil corporation is none other than Jen, Hopper's friend from the other reality and the main character of The Mill. The Jen that we are familiar with wasn't actually from an alternate reality, but the past, and the current Jen manipulated events to send her old self to receive treatments necessary for attaining immortality.
When Hopper and Ravin make their final assault on the central servers, a bit earlier than anticipated as events cause them to desperately push forward with the plan, they enter a final showdown with Jen. Jen makes full use of her gryphon form from The Mill, but Hopper also has the advantage of her cyborg enhancements. Eventually, when all looks lost, Hopper is able to defeat Jen by taking advantage of the same time-travel techniques which originally brought Jen into the story at the start of The Mill.
And this is where my biggest, and pretty much only critique of the story lies. The manner in which the time travel is used seemed to be both a bit confusing to follow, as well as almost completely unnecessary to actually defeat Jen. It didn't really seem to actually provide any tactical advantage in the fight. The present Hopper basically disappeared, then a past Hopper reappeared in her place, defeated Jen, and then was replaced by the present Hopper again. I didn't really see why the present Hopper couldn't have killed Jen herself, without having to get time travel involved.
It also doesn't help that in general, I'm just not a fan of time travel in stories. I value scientific accuracy in science fiction, and if done properly, time travel just doesn't lend itself well to good story telling. A good story is based on conflict, and with time-travel, there's no reason you can't just escape the conflict by traveling to an infinite number of timelines in which that conflict doesn't exist. There's no longer any point in resolving the conflict in your original timeline for two reasons. First, from an objective standpoint, your timeline is no more special than any other timeline, and the timeline you travel to, assuming you picked an appropriate one, would be almost indistinguishable from the original. Second, if for what ever reason, you do have some desire to resolve the conflict in the original timeline, say, for the sake of ending human suffering, you wouldn't actually be accomplishing anything. Yes, in the resulting timeline that problem may be solved, buy in acting to solve it, you also 'created' a timeline in which you failed to solve it, and the suffering continues. There also continues to be an infinite number of various timelines where that suffering exists, and no matter how many you resolve, there will continue to be an infinite amount. In essence, every possible outcome that could exist, does exist, and in an infinite number of varieties. You can't actually create, destroy, or modify timelines. You can take actions which appear to affect the timeline, but in actuality, are just moving you down a different timeline. The timelines in which other events or actions happened still exist, you just didn't travel down them. And with that in mind, time travel makes conflict uninteresting, as you can just travel immediately to the desired timeline rather than taking action to guide yourself down that timeline.
If anyone writing stories actually does understand time in this manner, they generally don't use it as such for the sake of story-telling. Which leaves writers with two options. Tell an uninteresting time travel story, or tell a time travel story which isn't scientifically accurate. In either case, it severely detracts from my enjoyment, which is why I generally don't like time travel. But again, I've gone off on another tangent, and this is another topic which warrants its own article.
In the case of the Verge of Desolation series, the time travel was kept to a minimum, and I had already gone in with an open mind, prepared to read a series set in a genre which I knew was a departure from my norm. I genuinely enjoyed Revolt as a story and piece of writing, much more than The Mill. Far depth was added to Hopper and her world, and she and Ravin were fighting for a cause I was keenly interested in. I felt I could understand what they were experiencing, and the story was well told. My overall opinion is quite positive, and even though its not my usual hard sci fi space opera, I would definitely recommend it.