Dyson’s Fear by Chris Farnell

January 8, 2021

The Fermi is Earth’s first faster-than-light capable spaceship. It’s also its last. The moment its engines engage, it unleashes a shockwave that vaporises entire planets, entire solar systems.
Fermi’s crew, the last surviving members of the human race, now find themselves circling an ancient Dyson sphere in a distant corner of the galaxy, where they must explore a city of ships and negotiate with a vast, lonely AI for their survival. But that isn’t their only problem.

Because the Fermi’s engines are powering up again…

What with all manner of real life events engulfing last year*, I made a conscious decision to reduce my reviewing output for a while. I took almost the entirety of December off to recharge my mental batteries, and now I’m back to the point where I am dipping my toe tentatively back into book reviewing waters.

This week’s review is Dyson’s Fear, a new novella from Chris Farnell. I read Chris’ short story anthology, Dirty Work, way back in 2014 and thoroughly enjoyed it. His latest is a homage to classic science fiction with a quirky, modern twist.

The crew of the Fermi are a rag-tag bunch of mildly odd souls.

Samson is your typical alpha male; part James Tiberius Kirk, part Zapp Brannigan. Ok, maybe not quite so smug as those two but he is certainly self-confident to the nth degree. Failure is not a word in Samson’s vocabulary. There is only ever one direction he can go and that is always forward. Samson isn’t the captain though, he’s not in charge of the mission, but you get the distinct impression he thinks that he is. How could it possibly be otherwise?

Rajita Deb is the on-board technical wizard. While the rest of the crew are off out galivanting on alien worlds Rajita, has to try and figure out how to solve the tiny problem of the ship incinerating planets every time the engine starts.

If anyone is the captain of the Fermi, it’s Liz Gordon. The self-made queen of hi-tech start-ups has dared to dream the impossible. Using all her vast resources she has made faster than light travel possible. In comparison, actually captaining a spaceship should be a walk in the park, so why does it constantly feel like trying to juggle cats?

Finally, there is Connor, Samson’s brother and reluctant crew mate. Connor is the polar opposite of his sibling. Where Samson is all gung-ho and always ready for adventure, Connor wants nothing more than a sedate existence. The back and forth between these two is fun, an endless stream of positivity from Samson and ground down acceptance from Connor. You’ll probably not be surprised when I tell you families are hard work, doubly so when space travel is involved.

When the crew meet the inhabitants of the Dyson sphere Farnell does a grand job of capturing the sense of curiosity on both sides of the encounter. The humans, and their alien counterparts, really aren’t sure what to make of one another. The culture shock feels palpable.

There is a 1950’s sci-fi movie vibe to the novella that I really liked. A plucky crew hurling themselves into the void, unsure of what they’ll find. Alien races and adventure ahoy! Farnell tempers these retro stylings with a nicely judged modern sensibility. The author injects some subtle humour and the odd pop culture reference or two into the narrative.

There is an episodic air to the story which works well. Dyson’s Fear can definitely be viewed as a standalone tale but I suspect it will also fit neatly into the larger narrative the author is working on. I think this novella achieves exactly what it sets out to do. The main characters are well established and the beginnings of a larger plot are merging. Dyson’s Fear is a solidly entertaining slice of science fiction that I thoroughly enjoyed. Turns out it was the perfect way to begin my 2021 reading

Dyson’s Fear is available from 15th January. More detail can be found on Chris Farnell’s website. A further trio of novellas that will collectively form the remainder of Fermi’s Progress are set to follow.

My musical recommendation to accompany Dyson’s Fear is the soundtrack to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan by the legendary James Horner. A personal favourite of mine, it always invokes a certain sense of adventure, exploration and danger whenever I hear it.

*And based on what I’m seeming today, this year as well.

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