Gemma Church on a new novel by Gary Gibson
Europa’s surface is blasted by radiation from Jupiter. That’s a bad thing for life on the surface – it couldn’t survive. But the radiation may create fuel for life in an ocean below the surface.— NASA Solar System Exploration website
In Europa Deep (Brain in a Jar Books, 2023), Gary Gibson takes a far more positive view than NASA of the potential of Jupiter’s ocean moon Europa to nurture life. He presents a near-future where humanity knows Europan life exists – but the details are hazy due to the disappearance of the first crewed expedition sent to explore the vast ocean beneath the kilometres-thick ice crust covering the Galilean moon.
The novel follows Cassie White, a diver working as part of the Joint EU-Australasia Oceanic Task Force who is invited to join a second Europan expedition to discover what happened to the first mission fifteen years earlier. But Europa Deep is not your typical story of a voyage into space where a seemingly benign alien lifeform becomes a threat to those investigating it. If anything, people are the greatest threat to life in Europa Deep – whether that’s human, alien or artificially intelligent life. Or something between those classifications: In Europa Deep, Gibson explores the boundaries between different forms of life, and also the boundary between life and death.
Central to the novel is a sentient AI called Marcus who was once a ‘meatsack’ engineer and has since uploaded his consciousness. Gibson portrays reaction to Marcus’s decision to upload through different lenses: although society’s overwhelming reaction to sentient AI descends into discrimination and then oppression, many individuals do not have a problem with Marcus when they encounter him. Even one of his biggest critics, who viewed Marcus as ‘a grotesque parody’ of a man, comes to regard him as ‘far more than just a machine’. It’s a clever remonstration of today’s groupthink where judgements are made based on conjecture instead of real, firsthand encounters with the individuals who the masses try to demonise.
Gibson also explores public distrust of scientific advancements in general, and pulls no punches, one character quipping: ‘People aren’t interested in facts. They’re interested only in things that confirm what they already believe in.’
Europa Deep is set in a time where humans and technology are failing to co-exist. But this is not a dystopian tale. Gibson has created a believable, sometimes terrifying story of society’s struggling relationship with technology, and a story that ends on a poignant, optimistic note.
The protagonist, Cassie White, has her own battles with both society and technology. She is an Opt – a human whose DNA has been tweaked to optimise her to survive in extra-terrestrial environments. She can withstand high rates of exposure to cosmic radiation and conserve oxygen with ease, for example. But when Opts are banned from space, Cassie struggles to cope without the ‘hit’ that being in space gives her. It’s a cruel twist – her DNA was purposefully edited to make her crave the weightlessness of space – a weakness that’s quickly exploited by an ex-senator called Ketteridge, a politician who makes X-Men’s mutant-hating Robert Kelly look positively swell.
During the three-year trip to Europa, Cassie sees how the world begins to oust and then persecute Opts. Opt refugee camps are replaced with concentration camps with rumours of Opt sterilisation programs. Sentient AIs like Marcus face a similar fate. These developments are reported coolly and without comment, making them all the more unsettling. The future Gibson has imagined is deep and broad, and, as with Europa, a tantalising amount of the world is left just out of reach.
A few years ago I was lucky enough to hear Apollo astronaut Charlie Duke speak. He talked vividly about what he felt as he stood on the moon, and also about how those emotions are what he remembers most. In a neat irony, the only character in Europa Deep to be awed at landing on a new world is Marcus, the uploaded soul. In Gibson’s world, humans have become complacent about the beauty of the cosmos and can think only about how they can profit from other worlds. There are few pauses for wonder. As one of the human crew observes: ‘Forget lunar tourism. You could make billions bringing rich assholes out here.’
Gibson’s astronauts are living in a near-future where space travel is commonplace. They have jobs to do. And those jobs are made increasingly difficult due to the circumstances they find themselves in. This is where Gibson truly shines: he places the characters not only in physical danger, but also in conflict with one another, and with themselves. As is often the way in stories set in the confines of spaceships, a string of technical failures lead to the crew complement shrinking one by one. Gibson uses the voyage to Europa to build tension, providing the reader with a steady trickle of information and ending chapters at just the right points. Strained relationships and suspense are high and the book moves at a blistering pace.
Without giving anything away, when Cassie and the crew of the Veles venture beneath the ice of the moon, Europa Deep leaves behind the verisimilitude of science fact and tells a science fiction story full of fantasy wonder. There are also lovely nods to other sf novels. I certainly hope that when someone breaks the ice on Europa, they find a massive volcano and call it Mount Doom and that there are Europan base stations called Verne and Nemo.
NASA’s Europa Clipper mission, launching in October 2024 with the first Europa flyby scheduled for September 2031, will help scientists determine whether or not conditions on the smallest Galilean moon could allow it to harbour life. But there are no crewed missions to Europa planned at the time of writing, NASA and other space agencies perhaps taking too literally the warning in Arthur C. Clarke’s 2010: Odyssey Two to ‘ATTEMPT NO LANDING THERE’.
Whatever life is or is not present on Europa, I hope we discover something akin to the flights of fantasy in Europa Deep, as what Gibson imagined under the ice certainly warmed this once-astrophysicist’s cold, cynical heart. ∎
With two degrees in physics, Gemma Church has worked in science communication for 20+ years, currently heading up content at a quantum computing company. She has an Undergraduate Diploma in Creative Writing from Cambridge University, completed Faber’s Writing a Novel course and her speculative fiction short stories appear in various publications, including Indie Bites, Obsolescence and The Writer’s Forum.
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