Cyberstealth, SN Lewitt (1989)
Review by Ian Sales
There is no clue on the cover or back-cover blurb that Cyberstealth is the product of a woman sf writer. It’s pure Top Gun military sf and presented as such – from the tagline “It’s not easy being the best…” to an approving puff by David Drake, and cover art depicting a handsome male lead and the latest in combat spacecraft. While Cyberstealth is more resolutely mil sf – perhaps even to the point of cliché – there is much in it familiar to readers of Lewitt’s debut, Angel at Apogee. Both feature as protagonists an outsider in an elite branch of the military, and make use of a non-Anglophone culture – Romany in this case; and it’s much better integrated than in her debut.
Cargo was a Romany juvenile delinquent adopted by Bishop Andre Mirabeau, a powerful and well-respected diplomat and politician in the Collegium, a polity of worlds comprising human and alien Akhaid. As Cyberstealth opens, Cargo and his “Eyes”, Ghoster, an Akhaid, have just been transferred from their normal fighter wing to an elite group, where they will fly super-sophisticated stealth batwing spacecraft. They soon learn that there is a spy among their intake of four pilots and four Eyes. Fourways, the commandant of the training facility seems to suspect Cargo.
The Collegium is currently at war with the Cardia, an alliance of breakaway worlds formed after the Luxor Incident, a terrorist attack on a holiday planet. Cargo and Ghoster had flown kraits – star-fighters – against Cardia fighters, and shortly before their transfer to the batwing group, were under investigation for a possible friendly fire incident. Cargo’s wingman, also an adoptee of the Bishop, was killed, and Cargo may have fired the fatal shot. He is cleared by an investigation, but it does make him prime suspect as the traitor.
The first section of Cyberstealth, in which Cargo learns how to fly the batwing, is chiefly introduction to the universe of the story and its cast. Flashbacks detail Cargo’s childhood, and his Romany culture. He finds himself disliking fellow batwing trainee pilot Stonewall, but cannot work out why – but he does think Stonewall may be the spy. He also falls in love with Plato, another fellow trainee.
But then another pilot makes a slip, is interrogated, subsequently commits suicide and it seems the spy has been found. So the group is assigned to a carrier, and their first mission is to accompany the Bishop on a secret goodwill visit to a Cardia world, Marcanter. Complicating matters is the fact that Marcanter is home to the Cardia equivalent of the batwings, called mirages. Cargo and Ghoster are tasked with infiltrating the mirage base. They pull a Firefox – pretend to be Cardia and steal one of the enemy craft during an attack on the Collegium carrier. Obviously, there is still a traitor in the batwing group, because how else would the Cardia mirages had known where to find the hidden carrier? Cargo saves the day… and then discovers the identity of the traitor…
Lewitt is clearly a firm believer in “show don’t tell” and throws the reader straight in at the deep end. Readers are left to puzzle out the meanings of neologisms from context, and the background is revealed piecemeal, often making the story more confusing than it would otherwise be. Lewitt had also plainly watched Top Gun a few times too often, and Cyberstealth is filled with pilot jargon – some of it obviously invented, but much of it based on the sort of dialogue found in gung-ho military pilot movies. As a result, it takes a while for the novel to get going, and the human characters often feel as alien as the Akhaid.
It is also a bizarrely colourful universe in Cyberstealth. There are frequent descriptions of the spacecraft and, with the exception of the matt black batwing, most seemed to have been “burned” in various dayglo colours like yellow or purple. There are lingering descriptions of food, particularly in the sections set in the Bishop’s point of view. These make for an oddly unbalanced story, conflicting with the macho, hard sf nature of the batwings and Cargo’s experience flying them.
But even that too doesn’t really fit with the Top Gun image presented by the characters. The cyber- in Cyberstealth refers to the “Maze”, the neural interface by which the pilots fly their craft – and interact with their alien crewmates. Lewitt’s Maze is not as clumsy a metaphor as Cherryh’s in Voyager in Night, but the cyberpunk-ish edge to what is essentially a routine Sierra Hotel pilot space opera story never really quite gels.
There are things to like in Lewitt’s fiction: she builds interesting worlds for her stories, her prose is usually good, and she puts interesting spins on somewhat clichéd stories and situations. Her refusal to explain does mean her novels need to be initially taken on trust more so than other writers, but it pays off – her novels are very immersive. Cyberstealth reads like an early work by a writer who was clear from the start how she wanted to tell stories, but still needed more practice in successfully putting the various parts together. It’s perhaps too much like space opera to appeal to fans of military sf, and not quite polished enough to appeal to fans of space opera. It was followed by a sequel, Dancing Vac, and SN Lewitt – eventually using her full name, Shariann Lewitt – then went on to write some very good sf novels.