In First Contact, Book 1 of David Marusek's (previously) science fiction series Upon This Rock, an alien being crash lands in a remote corner of Alaska, not far from a family-cult of preppers for the end times, and the alien exploits the beliefs of the family patriarch by posing as an angel sent to earth to initiate the final conflict. Rooted deeply in contemporary Alaskan landscape and culture, the novel is funny and painful, part satire and part serious exploration of a particularly unfortunate instance of first contact. The novel ends on a cliffhanger, leaving many questions unanswered.
Glassing the Orgachine, Book 2 of Upon This Rock, picks up the story of the alien and the evangelist, simultaneously deepening its focus on particular Alaskan characters and expanding outward to include an intergalactic conflict. In the process it takes on some of the big questions of human and nonhuman nature explored in novels like C. S. Lewis's Out of the Silent Planet, Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow, and John Varley's The Ophiuchi Hotline. The juxtaposition of present-day satire with mind-bending drama is also reminiscent of alternate-world classics like Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle and even Gulliver's Travels. Best of all, the novel pushes all that thematic weight briskly along at a rapid pace.
Glassing the Orgachine particularly addresses the phenomenon of intelligence making a transition from organic to machine-based or, as the title suggests, from machine to organic. (Marusek defines an "orgachine" as a "reverse cyborg," a "super-intelligent machine that has augmented itself with an organic body.") The "singularity" is posited as an event repeated in species after species across the universe, with varying results. It turns out that not everyone is interested in seeing what happens when we earthlings get around to making that quantum leap, and some nasty folks decide to terminate the earth with extreme prejudice. Luckily we have allies out there as well, but their help comes with a very big karmic load.
What especially makes Marusek's book so absorbing is that big questions of galactic import are being faced by a cast of engaging, complex characters who live in, work near, retreat to, or descend upon a quirky village in Alaska. Pseudonymously employing the town of McCarthy on the edge of America's largest and emptiest National Park, a certain infamous female former governor (who in this version turned down the vice-presidential run), and a real-life cult-family about whom a New York Times bestselling book was written (Pilgrim's Wilderness by Tom Kizzia), Upon This Rock highlights some of the fascinating contrasts of life on "the last frontier." Marusek has lived and worked in Alaska for decades and, knowing the place well, has created an alternate version of contemporary Alaska that is tellingly accurate in the small details. Parts of First Contact necessarily explained that world for non-Alaskans; Glassing the Orgachine is able to build on the earlier explication, and thereby allow more time for plot and character development.
The "Character List and Glossary" in which Marusek defines "orgachine" is only one of the useful bits of side matter that are included in the novel. Since Upon This Rock is self-published (by an award-winning science fiction author who published two novels with Tor and who was also a technical writer and designer), we can give Marusek full responsibility for such "digital" accoutrements as "Previously in" and "Sidebars." As a genre, science fiction often makes use of world-building paratext (like maps and background information, or even recipes and songs), and most readers will have no problem with these devices. Both Upon This Rock books are attractive, well made, and, most importantly, well edited. (Since they are published on-demand, Marusek can continuously copy-edit them.) I appreciated being re-contextualized by the refresher course of the "Previously on" segment in Glassing the Orgachine, since it had been a year since I'd read First Contact. If you read them back to back, you'll appreciate being able to skip that segment while also not having to get through "reminder" explication built into the novel.
There are a lot of different reasons for reading Upon This Rock, including accurate details of life in Alaska, thoughtful speculation about what it might be like to grow up in a cult that is also your family, an intriguing alien consciousness and intergalactic community, and plenty of difficult ethical decisions with consequences large and small. Not to mention a love story between a hippie ranger and the preacher's daughter. The best part is seeing how all those diverse elements work so well together. The fate of the earth (and others) is in whose hands? Stay tuned.
Glassing the Orgachine [David Marusek]
Eric Heyne is Professor of English at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.