The Softwire: Virus On Orbis 1 is P. J. Haarsma’s first novel, and the first in a new science fiction series for young adults. There is also an on-line game available that is set in the universe established in the book.
The central character is Johnny Turnbull, called JT by his friends. He’s 13 years old when the reader meets him, and has spent his whole life on a “seed”-ship called the Renaissance. Due to a mishap during the voyage, all the adults were killed. Mother, the ship’s computer, cycles the embryos of children through, birthing them, then nurturing them to the best of its ability. None of the children have ever known their parents.
JT’s best friend is Maxine Bennett, called Max by everyone. She’s the brainy sort and is good with computer systems. Ketheria, JT’s eight-year-old sister, doesn’t speak and hasn’t since she was born. No one knows why.
Of the 200 children of various ages on the seed-ship, JT is the only one who can directly talk to Mother, a fact that only Max believes. Mother won’t reveal that connection either, and JT doesn’t know why. He’s also learned there are files that Mother keeps hidden even from him.
When Renaissance originally set out, the parents had signed contracts with a world called Orbis. According to the agreement, they were going to work for a year on each ring, then be able to apply for full citizenship. Orbis circles a wormhole, a physical “hole” in space that reaches from one area of space to another.
But with the parents dead, JT and the others don’t know what kind of reception to expect on Orbis. As soon as they arrive, something goes wrong with the central computer that controls the rings. They also learn that they’re going to be expected to honor their parents’ contracts with the Orbis natives or be ejected out into the wormhole and presumably their deaths. It’s not much of a decision.
Even worse, their parents broke the contract with the Orbis Guarantors by having children on the ship. According to the agreements, no children were to be involved. JT and the others have no clue as to why that clause in the contract was broken.
Faced with their limited choices, JT and the other seed ship children quickly agree to the indentured servitude and get injected with hardware that accesses their brains and immediately teaches them all the languages used on Orbis. Furthermore, they’re able to go to school and directly download files they need to learn into their brains.
During the hardware upgrade, JT learns that he’s a “softwire,” a being capable of interfacing directly with computers simply by willing it, without having a physical connection. The ability quickly upsets many of the Orbis natives because it makes him more powerful than any of them are comfortable with. At first, many of the natives talk about killing him outright. In fact, Madame Lee, one of the Council members, kills a man as they’re discussing the fate of the seed-ship children. Two factions on Orbis’s rings fight for control.
After a while, he’s assigned to Weegin, a junk dealer. JT makes Weegin take Ketheria, too. The life sorting through the junk Weegin buys and separates into scrap and salvageable components is hard and without hope.
While in his sleep pod, using the dream enhancement hardware, JT begins having strange dreams about a girl living within a forest somewhere in Orbis. At first he thinks the girl is Ketheria, but he quickly determines that she isn’t. He also learns that she’s in grave danger, under attack by creatures all the time.
Only a short time after that, JT discovers the shattered remains of the Renaissance while processing junk. Weegin has bought salvage rights to the seed-ship and junked it out. Now JT knows for certain there’s no way off Orbis.
And that’s just the beginning of the mysteries and adventures posed by The Softwire: Virus On Orbis 1. There are many more to come, and all of them fleshed out by the detailed mythos Haarsma has created for his world and his characters.
Reading the novel feels a lot like opening up vintage Robert A. Heinlein and Andre Norton. The whiz-bang cutting-edge tech, like the sleepers and dream enhancement gear, as well as the idea of the softwire is pure Heinleinesque, only moved into the 21st century. But the worldbuilding feels more like classic Andre Norton, with touches like the immortal Space Jumpers and the way the Orbis rings and Council are established. Haarsma seems to have grown up on the best kind of science fiction and is determined to delivery it back into the hands of young adults where such fancies take flight so easily.
The length is another plus. Compared to the tree-killing deluge of so many of today’s popular young adult book, The Softwire: Virus On Orbis 1 hits a comfortable 262 pages that reads incredibly fast. The pacing of the story is quick, too, even though a new, well-thought out world is being rendered for the first time.
The novel works great as a stand-alone tale. By the time the end is reached, all the threats and most of the questions have been answered. But it leaves the reader wanting more. Hopefully Haarsma won’t make his readers wait long before he delivers a second volume in this intriguing interstellar series.