Review: Artifact Space, by Miles Cameron

Russ Allbery eagle at
Sun Dec 18 20:16:37 PST 2022

Artifact Space
by Miles Cameron

Series:    Arcana Imperii #1
Publisher: Gollancz
Copyright: June 2021
ISBN:      1-4732-3262-7
Format:    Kindle
Pages:     483

Artifact Space is a military (mostly) science fiction novel, the first
of an expected trilogy. Christian Cameron is a prolific author of
historical fiction under that name, thrillers under the name Gordon
Kent, and historical fantasy under the name Miles Cameron. This is his
first science fiction novel.

Marca Nbaro is descended from one of the great spacefaring mercantile
families, but it's not doing her much good. She is a ward of the
Orphanage, the boarding school for orphaned children of the DHC,
generous in theory and a hellhole in practice. Her dream to serve on
one of the Greatships, the enormous interstellar vessels that form the
backbone of the human trading network, has been blocked by the school
authorities, a consequence of the low-grade war she's been fighting
with them throughout her teenage years. But Marca is not a person to
take no for an answer. Pawning her family crest gets her just enough
money to hire a hacker to doctor her school records, adding the
graduation she was denied and getting her aboard the Greatship Athens
as a new Midshipper.

I don't read a lot of military science fiction, but there is one type
of story that I love that military SF is uniquely well-suited to tell.
It's not the combat or the tactics or the often-trite politics. It's
the experience of the military as a system, a collective human

One ideal of the military is that people come to it from all sorts of
backgrounds, races, and social classes, and the military incorporates
them all into a system built for a purpose. It doesn't matter who you
are or what you did before: if you follow the rules, do your job, and
become part of a collaboration larger than yourself, you have a place
and people to watch your back whether or not they know you or like you.
Obviously, like any ideal, many militaries don't live up to this, and
there are many stories about those failures. But the story of that
ideal, told well, is a genre I like a great deal and is hard to find

This sort of military story shares some features with found family, and
it's not a coincidence that I also like found family stories. But found
family still assumes that these people love you, or at least like you.
For some protagonists, that's a tricky barrier both to cross and to
believe one has crossed. The (admittedly idealized) military doesn't
assume anyone likes you. It doesn't expect that you or anyone around
you have the right feelings. It just expects you to do your job and
work with other people who are doing their job. The requirements are
more concrete, and thus in a way easier to believe in.

Artifact Space is one of those military science fiction stories. I was
entirely unsurprised to see that the author is a former US Navy career

The Greatships here are, technically, more of a merchant marine than a
full-blown military. (The author noted in an interview that he based on
them on the merchant ships of Venice.) The weapons are used primarily
for defense; the purpose of the Greatships is trade, and every crew
member has a storage allotment in the immense cargo area that they're
encouraged to use. The setting is in the far future, after a partial
collapse and reconstruction of human society, in which humans have
spread through interstellar space, settled habitable planets, and built
immense orbital cities. The Athens is trading between multiple human
settlements, but its true destination is far into the deep black:
Tradepoint, where it can trade with the mysterious alien Starfish for
xenoglas, a material that humans have tried and failed to reproduce and
on which much of human construction now depends.

This is, to warn, one of those stories where the scrappy underdog of
noble birth makes friends with everyone and is far more competent than
anyone expects. The story shape is not going to surprise you, and you
have to have considerable tolerance for it to enjoy this book. Marca is
ridiculously, absurdly central to the plot for a new Middie. Sometimes
this makes sense given her history; other times, she is in the middle
of improbable accidents that felt forced by the author. Cameron doesn't
entirely break normal career progression, but Marca is very special in
a way that you only get to be as the protagonist of a novel.

That said, Cameron does some things with that story shape that I liked.
Marca's hard-won survival skills are not weirdly well-suited for her
new life aboard ship. To the contrary, she has to unlearn a lot of bad
habits and let go of a lot of anxiety. I particularly liked her
relationship with her more-privileged cabin mate, which at first seemed
to only be a contrast between Thea's privilege and Marca's background,
but turned into both of them learning from each other. There's a great
mix of supporting characters, with a wide variety of interactions with
Marca and a solid sense that all of the characters have their own lives
and their own concerns that don't revolve around her.

There is, of course, a plot to go with this. I haven't talked about it
much because I think the summaries of this book are a bit of a spoiler,
but there are several layers of political intrigue, threats to the
ship, an interesting AI, and a good hook in the alien xenoglas trade.
Cameron does a deft job balancing the plot with Marca's training and
her slow-developing sense of place in the ship (and fear about
discovery of her background and hacking). The pacing is excellent,
showing all the skill I'd expect from someone with a thriller
background and over forty prior novels under his belt. Cameron portrays
the tedious work of learning a role on a ship without boring the
reader, which is a tricky balancing act.

I also like the setting: a richly multicultural future that felt like
it included people from all of Earth, not just the white western parts.
That includes a normalized androgyne third gender, which is the sort of
thing you rarely see in military SF. Faster-than-light travel involves
typical physics hand-waving, but the shape of the hand-waving is one
I've not seen before and is a great excuse for copying the well-known
property of oceangoing navies that longer ships can go faster.

(One tech grumble, though: while Cameron does eventually say that this
is a known tactic and Marca didn't come up with anything novel,
deploying spread sensors for greater resolution is sufficiently obvious
it should be standard procedure, and shouldn't have warranted the
character reactions it got.)

I thoroughly enjoyed this. Artifact Space is the best military SF that
I've read in quite a while, at least back to John G. Hemry's JAG in
space novels and probably better than those. It's going to strike some
readers, with justification, as cliched, but the cliches are handled so
well that I had only minor grumbling at a few absurd coincidences.
Marca is a great character who is easy to care about. The plot was
tense and satisfying, and the feeling of military structure, tradition,
jargon, and ship pride was handled well. I had a very hard time putting
this down and was sad when it ended.

If you're in the mood for that class of "learning how to be part of a
collaborative structure" style of military SF, recommended.

Artifact Space reaches a somewhat satisfying conclusion, but leaves
major plot elements unresolved. Followed by Deep Black, which doesn't
have a release date at the time of this writing.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Reviewed: 2022-12-18


Russ Allbery (eagle at             <>

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