A fallen interstellar empire, a curious, adventurous archaeologist, and a lost pleasure planet whose inhabitants live in the midst of the secrets of that fallen empire are the setting for Artemis Awakening by Jane Lindskold. Lindskold is an author whose work I read early in her career, in her collaborations with and her Zelazny-inspired early work.
Griffin is a scholar whose researches on his rebuilding-to-space-travel home planet have led him to take a solo mission to search for and find Artemis. Back in the days when the old Empire reached across this part of the galaxy, Artemis was designed and built as a high-class resort for the creme de la creme of the Empire. A place such as this, Griffin reasons, would be full of wonders and technology of the old Empire. Crash landing his shuttle on Artemis, however, and having to be rescued by Adara, one of the relatively primitive inhabitants, changes his mission entirely. Now Griffin needs to find the technology of the ancients to try to find a way back up to orbit.
As much as the novel is Griffin’s story and relies on Griffin as the plot driver, the heart of the story is Adara, and her puma companion Sand Shadow. The inhabitants of Artemis are the descendant products of the genetic engineering that the ancients did on the staff of Artemis back in the day, as evidenced by Adara’s superior skills and her bond with Sand Shadow. Sand Shadow herself is genetically engineered with intelligence and with changed paws that allow for the manipulation of objects. The novel delves deep into their relationship, and more particularly, for the burgeoning and developing relationship between this unlikely group of travelers, and the others that wind up following them on their journey. Both of them are surpremely adapted to their environment, and their nature, and how the world around them views their skills and the problems and challenges of having them in their midst, are extremely well handled. Even if they prefer the wilderness, even those such as Adara and Sand Shadow must deal with their fellow humans, too.
Thus the novel, for a fair chunk of it, reads as a travelogue/odd couple sort of story, as Adara, Sand Shadow and Griffin make their way from the crash of his shuttle on a quest to try and find a way to get Griffin back to orbit. We get some excellent description and evoking of the beauty of Artemis in its wild, and a slice of how the primitive survivors live, laugh, work and play in the ruins of the works of the lost ‘Seegnur’. There is a real interrogation of the consequences of how it is to live around the lost remnants of a past that you yourself can’t quite understand and remake for yourself. Griffin sits at the center of a lot of this, as Adara struggles to deal with the consequences and implications of Griffin’s arrival. The novel has a significant retro style and feel to it that some readers might find a bit quaint.
The novel and its characters are refreshingly questioning, intelligent and do not carry idiot balls. They question motivations, goals, ideas, and action. For example, Adara gives Griffin a lot of criticism for the hypocrisy of having wanted to get to Artemis, and then, with his shuttle wrecked, immediately wanting to get back to orbit and safety again. The novel does eventually resolve into a conflict greater than just against the elements, with an antagonist who has his own ideas for Griffin. The antagonist of the novel’s plans, goals and motivations are well formed, logical and not easily opposed. And there are hints of other things at work on the former pleasure planet, lurking in the background.
The novel, for me, evokes things like Planet of the Apes, where an astronaut is stranded among primitives and has to work on his wits, or The Mote in God’s Eye, where the high technology of the former Empire of Man has still not yet been re-learned and reachieved.
The RPG setting Tekumel has a setting where a former interstellar empire’s pleasure planet falls into savagery. Too, the RPG Other Dust is a post-apocalypse RPG where the descendants of a fallen Earth have to deal with the strange remnants of technology, nanotech and just the day-to-day challenges of survival. Finally, of course, one could run an adventure on Artemis in the RPG Traveller and just change a couple of minor details. Artemis could be a planet created by the Ancients, or even one of the earlier incarnations of the Empire.
Historically, of course, the parallels are in the Dark Ages of Europe, where the ruins of the Roman Empire were considered to be unapproachable wonder by the fallen descendants of those people living in their midst. In the end, living in the ruins of a greater past is difficult, but it is a rich environment for characters’ stories. In that, Lindskold excellently starts a new series, and I look forward to continuing to read about Griffin, Adara and Sand Shadow’s efforts to exist and transcend that fascinating environment, and learn the secrets that Artemis has on tap.