Burndive by Karin Lowachee

Karin Lowachee‘s Burndive was published by Warner Aspect around 2003. It functions as a sequel/stand-alone related novel to Warchild. I only heard of Lowachee a year ago, and so cannot be certain, but given that Warchild won the Warner Aspect First Novel Award I imagine that hopes ran high for Burndive, with people wondering if it could match Warchild’s bitter fluency. Burndive delivers, but it is a very different novel, and in some ways, I think, more ambitious.

Ryan Azarcon is nineteen years old. He is the son of a daringly rebellious war hero (Cairo Azarcon, whom we saw a great deal of in Warchild) and Austro’s public relations officer (Songlien Lau, who is sleeping with Ryan’s bodyguard, Tim Sidney/Sid). He’s met his father in the flesh thrice his entire life. And recently, ever so recently, he was a bystander at a terrorist attack in Hongkong, an attack aimed at least partially at his paternal grandfather (Admiral Ashrafi, who adopted Cairo when he was eighteen – a full year younger than Ryan is now). And the boy is doing Silver, Austro’s version of pure recreational drug.

The opening of the novel is almost deliberately geared to make one dislike Ryan. He’s a teenager, and is described quite exhaustively in terms that would fit quite well in a romance novel. He’s a celebrity, and the text seems uncertain how to present it to the reader – what happens is very close to the Paris Hilton effect – even before he does anything wrong, you’re not quite disposed to like him. (And he does so very little that is right.) He complains. He is snide, sarcastic, and cynical. And uncomfortably observant.

Ryan’s third person narrative allows him, without necessarily lying (that’s bad PR!) to avoid discussing the traumas that he has suffered, and the daily pains that he still must face. The third person narrative is one that lacks a certain intimacy. It mimics the constant media reporting on his movements, the infringement on his mobility, privacy and person. There is no familiarity, no comfort, when everyone know your name. In the third person narrative, Ryan’s inner and outer dialogue use words as an attack device. While laying bare his needs and reasons for sympathy it closes the reader off from him, it’s simultaneously extremely good writing, and extremely awkward reading.

Ryan’s control over his words is in stark contrast to his control over his body, and who has access to it. From the media (“meedees” in Ryan’s parlance) to unknown assassins, his personal space and bodily integrity are constantly threatened, and his narrative reflects a constant preoccupation with bleeding, with cutting – the breaking of the skin, the loss of life fluids. There’s a shock to the system that reverberates all the more because so much time and effort has been put into protecting him, by adults who all care for him but cannot completely connect with him. Yet his threatened body only reminds him that he has survived, over and over. That’s part of the problem. (Mark!)

As the novel progresses, Ryan’s father takes him aboard his ship, the Macedon, and takes him to Chaos station, where he is in negotiation for peace with the striviirc-na, an alien race with whom the EarthHub government is at war (ostensibly over territorial and resource disputes). This is a chance to see the striviirc-na from a point of view that is not Jos Musey’s. In Warchild, Jos spends formative years among the striviirc-na, and in many ways understands them as a “normal” human being might not. Ryan’s reaction to them, to their “Otherness”, their non-human, non-animalness, is controlled fear and mistrust. This is one of the few moments in the novel that doesn’t work for me, mainly because Warchild has spent so much time making sure that Jos and Cairo Azarcon deal with the striviirc-na, calling them by the name they choose for themselves, rather than the human derogatory term “strit”, which Ryan uses with great gusto, along with “symp” for “sympathiser”. I can see why Ryan speaks the way he does – unlike Jos, his introduction to the striviirc-na is not at all gentle – and his thought processes are not more than usually narrow, but after Warchild, it arouses a sharp dislike for the young man, and a wish that someone would make him shut up and listen for a change. (But words are his weapons, and he won’t let anyone wound him with them if he can help it.)

[It’s a nice note, by the way, on how Ryan might hate being consumed by the media, but when their reports are about Others who are not him, is quite pleased to be a consumer.]

Another note that doesn’t work completely for me is the reintroduction of almost all of Warchild’s supporting cast into Ryan’s story. I can see how Erret Dorr and Jos Musey can entwine into Ryan’s tale – Dorr is an offensively extroverted and intrusive young corporal with Issues hanging off a very large chip on his shoulder and a mysterious (unsexualised) closeness to Azarcon Sr, while Jos is detailed by Cairo to take Ryan in hand and familiarise him with the ship. But all of the others – Evan, Aki, even Sanchez, who is a very unpleasant character and seems to exist for the sake of getting in people’s way – seem to enter Ryan’s sphere of notice arbitrarily, because they had to be there somehow and this was how it was done. By the end of the novel their dynamic has shifted quite a bit – in part due to Ryan’s internal stabilisation – but it never rings quite true to me, since I am never convinced it could exist in the first place. [I’ve not found a single other review which found this a problem, and likely I am picking at straws.]

In some ways, I think of Ryan as a bridge – he connects the protagonists of Warchild and Cagebird (more on this note later), and thematically, within the novel, he is the body upon which negotiations are conducted – between humans and the striviirc-na, between all of his various parents/mentors, between his new peers on the Macedon. War and peace, on their macro and micro levels, are always waged on the bodies of bystanders. And in some senses, Ryan can be this bridge because, for all the pain he suffers (and we need not minimise that pain, or dismiss it out of hand, simply because it does not match Jos’, or Yuri’s, or Cairo’s) he has been protected, and loved, by grandparents, parents, and bodyguard, through all of his life. None of his guardians may have done a perfect job, but who does? Ryan gains the luxury of feeling unsafe, and the greater luxury of finding a centre where he can face the uncertainties of the life and the family he is born to because he has that family to begin with.

Near the end of the novel, we meet Yuri Kirov, a pirate – protégé to Falcone, whom we met in Warchild. Yuri is the protagonist of Cagebird, the third novel set in this universe, but in Burndive he is introduced before we even meet him as the man, the boy, who chose what Jos and Cairo did not choose – he is a pirate, Falcone’s protégé, and his choices mark him as evil. But when Ryan finally meets him, there are these moments – short, but distinct – of understanding, of sympathy. Ryan’s role in this novel is, continually, to face the new, the unfamiliar, the unsafe and to find in them something worth holding to, something to connect with. He stands between Jos Musey and Yuri Kirov, who both have difficulties in making deals because they cannot use words, cannot reach out and touch people. But Ryan learns. It shows most clearly in his final narrative, made strongly and clearly – and somewhat naively, for his is, still, very young – in the first person.

You rarely get to choose the traps that close around you. You do get to choose how you react once you’re there. Burndive follows Ryan Azarcon, who at this age can never really be free, and asks of him what he might do when he finally is. It’s not an easy Bildungsroman , or even a complete one. But it is, perfectly, enough.

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