Mysterious doings on Termagenti station, and the story of a tortured survivor of an exploration gone wrong, both external and internal, are at the heart of Substrate Phantoms, a debut space opera novel from Jessica Reisman. Substrate Phantoms features a strong character-based focus for the novel, playing firmly in the more literary side of the genre as it explores a story of what only slowly and painstakingly is revealed to be one of a first contact with the Other. The novel primarily follows a pair of characters whose stories touch and eventually converge.
Jhinsei was part of a tube team, one of the groups on Termangenti Station sent as troubleshooters for various systems on the complex and sometimes badly functioning orbital habitat. In the prologue of the novel, he and his team check out a problem in the station in an area near where a mysterious derelict spacecraft has long been stashed. Things went…bad on that mission, to the point where Jhinsei, the most junior member of the team, was the only survivor. Eighteen months later, now in a safer dead end job, the consequences of that expedition and what really happened to Jhinsei start to emerge. Jhinsei has started to hear and see things, including the voices of the dead members of his team. And other things have started to happen in his presence as well. These strange events around him bring Jhinsei and what happened to the attention of some very powerful people on the station. This will put Jhinsei on the run from those he cares about, and ultimately the station itself.
In the meantime, Tiyo Mhethianne Tiyo is the son of one of those powerful people. Mheth is not really interested in the games of power and politics his father and siblings favor. He’d rather help create documentaries exploring and illuminating the abuses of power and economics. And as the novel opens, this is precisely what he is doing, sponsoring a hard look at some rather shady business dealings his family inexorably has ties to. His documentary movie production career, however, is guaranteed to upset the powerful and elite, including and especially his own father. Being the squeaky wheel will have Mheth, too, make hard choices and put him on a path that will take him away from Termagenti Station, perhaps forever.
The novel’s plot is relatively slight, but the deepness and exploration of character is where this novel shines. The author puts a lot of pages and effort into and focuses her style on the inner plight of her two protagonists, more especially Jhinsei. Given the nature of the first contact, this novel can and only could succeed on the strength of that writing. While I did not find Mheth’s story as compelling and interesting as Jhinsei’s, it is the latter’s story and struggle to understand what had happened, and what was happening to him through the novel, that drew me through the plot.
The novel’s literary values and literary focus did frustrate me a little bit in the reading, because in addition to the slightness of plot as noted above, I also do like some more technical meat on the bones of a SFF story than what I got, here. The novel is far more interested in character reactions and interior feelings and thoughts than some of the nuts and bolts that I generally like to inhale when entering a new SFF world, especially a Space Opera. The novel definitely speaks Space Opera, although more lightly than what I’d like. The novel focuses on a station and on a planet, and hints and intimations of a wider universe. But it’s a very “interior” novel, on levels ranging from literary to characterization.
Readers who do want a crunchy experience are going to find a relative lack of it, here. The novel is very well written; the author’s hand is deft and assured. Readers who are looking for a more literary experience in their SFF than I generally do will find a lot to like in Reisman’s debut novel.