Mike Gullickson’s THE NORTHERN STAR: THE BEGINNING is a big a stew of, among other genres, cyberpunk, dystopian sci-fi, political thriller, body horror and whatever genre is the one with giant fighting robots. It’s set in a very bleak 2058, with the U.S. military occupying the entire Middle East, and petroleum so scarce that cars are practically extinct. The internet is now a psychically linked virtual-reality environment, and the corporation that keeps the mind-internet running is pretty much more powerful than just about any government. The U.S. government has put its faith in its new top-secret weapon: a cyborg warrior that’s virtually indestructible. And there’s another top-secret weapon that only one rogue government operative knows about: an autistic boy who can control the cyberspace world in a Keanu-Reeves-like way.
Part of the strength of this, the first installment of Gullickson’s THE NORTHERN STAR series, is how both disturbing and horribly plausible this future is. And it’s a future full of moral ambiguity: the novel never really gives you anyone to root for, just some lighter and darker shades of gray. The novel never tells the reader what to think or how to feel, though most everyone will agree that at very least a great many of the players in this novel’s geopolitical game are guilty of some pretty unspeakable atrocities.
With the graphic violence and the vivid descriptions of the truly awful and dehumanizing process of converting injured soldiers into battle cyborgs, it’s worth noting this book is in many ways an essentially human story: despite it being a story in which so much humanity is stripped away, so much more of it remains. The human touch shows up in so many places, such as this otherwise ominous passage: “The constant John had was his family. The rest of the world was slick like oil, slipping through his fingers, always flowing away. He had chosen this life, he had known what he signed up for, but watching his best friend get wheeled out, never knowing if the eye contact they now shared would ever be shared again, filled John with melancholy.” [p. 159]
If THE NORTHERN STAR: THE BEGINNING has any flaws, it would be that, in addition to theMatrix-like elements hinted at above, the end of the novel does at times threaten to become an Iron Manfilm. But it’s always at least a little more than a conventional robot/superhero story, spanning multiple character arcs and genres and staking out plenty of territory of its own.
A truly disturbing book that also somehow manages to be hard to put down, THE NORTHERN STAR: THE BEGINNING has a solid story with good characters, and so much suspense, both plot-suspense and moral suspense, that it reveals itself as something far more cerebral than any giant-fighting-robots story generally ever is.
Reviewed by Charles Baker for IndieReader.