cover art copyright Stephen Youll, cover design Jamie S. Youll
Spin Control is the second novel in Chris Moriarty’s SPIN series. I read and loved Spin State, but I hesitated on this second novel. Spin State was a great read, but it was bogged down with explaining the dense technology that literally infested Catherine Li’s life. By the end of the novel, Li was in a relationship with Cohen which intertwined intimately along these technobabelical lines, and I wasn’t sure the next novel could stand against the depth of that kind of relationship – especially since this isn’t fantasy, where somehow I find it easier to accept variations on this sort of mental mesh.
Further, Spin Control is set not on the outer ring of settled-by-humans space, but on an Earth abandoned by all but the religious, the freakish and the Americans, smack in the middle of the Israel-Palestine conflict. The Syndicate – nations that produce and are made up of perfect and ever-perfected clones – drives one of the main subplots, somehow connected with Israeli-Palestinian spy machinations. I thought: this is going to be terrible.
So now I have to eat my words, my hat and some humble pie.
Arkady is defecting from the Syndicate. He goes to Israel, ostensibly looking for Absalom, an Israeli agent, double agent, traitor, what-have-you. In return for information about an undescribed infection, a possible bioweapon, a possible antidote to a UN-spliced virus: he wants help from the Mossad – or really, assistance from anyone – to rescue his friend, colleague, lover, Arkasha. Arkasha is begin held for “renorming”, since he is too non-conforming for the Syndicates’ taste. (This part of the plot: what Arkady was offering, was a bit of a mess, but all spy novels are a bit of a mess at some point.)
Arkady is an excellent channel for the reader to see Earth as it will be in Moriarty’s 2350. As a Syndicate clone, he comes from a carefully, minutely regimented society that does not work according to human political or ideological paths, or even along human biological-emotional-social paradigms. He is a mermecologist, interested in ants, and not really very good negotiating the complicated political, agencied web the Syndicate usually protects him from.
Israel doesn’t want Arkady: so they hold an auction. The Americans, the Palestinians, the Artificial Life Emancipation Front come to hear Arkady’s story, and perhaps put in a bid for him and his information. This is where Li and Cohen come in: Cohen is a collection of sentient AIs channeled through one major, dominating persona, while Li is his partner, and an ex-veteren, the Butcher of Gilead. After an entire novel through Li’s point of view, Arkady’s horrified perspective of Li as a monster is interesting, and makes for a consistently broken presentation of what is really going on.
Cohen comes as a rep for ALEF, of which he is one of the foremost and oldest members. He also comes as an Israeli-by-nomination, and is entangled through patriotism and personal affection with some major players in the Mossad, and some major diplomatic disasters too. Meanwhile, he and Li are having trouble. There’s no way to put this nicely: Cohen is a dumb boyfriend, and Li has ISSUES. Their complicated, mundane difficulties are lightened by the interjections of router-decomposer, an AI who works for Cohen. router-decomposer is smart, quirky, quippy and sensible all at once – and a refreshing change from every other character.
No one – the Syndicate lines, the Palestinians, the American reps, the Israelis, Cohen&Li, Arkady – trusts anyone else, but since Spin Control is filtered through several different points of view, we are at least spared Li’s bewildered, practical, exhausting paranoia. (We are also spared Li’s former physical frailties, since she is recovered from her old injuries.What we get instead is Cohen’s physical frailties – Cohen filters himselves through a human “shunt”, and he’s overloading his current body. We are continually shown Cohen’s vulnerabilities, his delicate balancing acts to simply run himself in his AI spaces, and present himself in the more fleshly realms. (Cohen’s routines/systems are ant-based, which makes him an interesting parallel to Arkady, who is in mortal danger for most of the novel’s present.)
In between the narrative chaos of action in Israel we see flashbacks to Novalis, where we see Syndicate scientists attempt to study the previously terraformed planet, figure out what happened to the previous team (and who that team was), and try to get along with each other. It’s interesting to see the ways in which the clones are individuals and clone-personae, at one and the same time. Syndicate politics play out according to clone lines, with a few outliers making compromise very difficult. Novalis is a whole new realm of terraforming technonobabble weirdness that should not be, the scientists are falling sick, and tensions rise beyond breaking point.
As the bidders, the agencies, the sellers, the innocents machinate around each other, the Israel-Palestinian war is being strategised by sentient AIs who do not know they ar fighting a real war, that real people are dying. Their soldiers are young adults, wired for AI shunts. Arkady’s evolutionary mutation, bioweapon, what-have-you, just ups the stakes on a planet rich in water and poor in children.
Spin Control’s compelling protagonists balance out its mostly incomprehensible plotlines – you’re continually pulled into empathetic understanding of several nations’ viewpoints while simultaneously having no fucking clue what is going on – until somewhere near the end, where everything dovetails rather too tidily.
Spin Control is a novel concerned with its future, its characters’ propagation and legacies. The Jews and Palestinians are concerned for their dwindling number of children. The Syndicates are concerned that without new planets, new homes, fresh population sources to mine gene-sets from, they will die out. Everywhere, people die. As such, Spin Control is also intensely concerned with the past – when to hold on to, what to keep, what to lose without regret. Cohen is one of the oldest emergent AIs around. Catherine Li has large tracts of her past which she cannot remember. The Israeli and the Palestinian memories of friendly détente tangle inextricably with their current brutalities and the lives they’ve lost and are losing.
I suspect that the novel might stand fairly well on its own, but it performs even better in the trilogy. I’m dying to read Ghost Spin, which should release in January next year. Moriarty presents her work with more grace than in her first novel, juggling her hard science, sociology, (chaos theory? the development of complex systems, anyway) and her convoluted personal relationships to present a coherent, fascinating whole.