Spin State (2003) is the first in Chris Moriarty’s SPIN series, and it was a finalist for quite a few awards (winning none).
The SPIN series is set in a far future where Earth has suffered ecological decay to the extent that most of humanity moved off-planet, “Ringside”. Specific nations, peoples of specific religions, stayed behind on Earth, and were the only ones to do so, and allowed to do so. Ringside and Earth enjoy a shaky unity under the aegis of UNSec (a creepy descendant of today’s UN). Outside of this human political entity are the Syndicates, nations made up of and producing large sets of ever-perfect and perfected clones. Travel and instant communication over the vast distances of space are made possible by “Bose-Einstein condensate”, which is found only on Compson’s World.
Spin State begins by setting up for us the weaknesses in Major Catherine Li’s life, the things that make her vulnerable. As a member of UNSec forces she is riddles with wetware technology that monitors and sometimes reconstructs her memory – some of which she loses with each “jump” through space. She is a Construct, a clone, hiding her overly sculpted features behind the flawed sculpture of plastic surgery. As as army grunt she is at the mercy of her superiors, as a War Hero she is at the mercy of her brutal, horrible reputation – and she doesn’t remember what she did to earn it.
It’s a little hard to get in tune with Li, because in Spin State Moriarty spends an extraordinary amount of time explaining the technology that Li lives with, and in. Her wetware regulates her hormones, backs-up her memories (she then hacks them), her adrenal rushes in fight-or-flight scenes. Her hidden, constructed advantages are treated in some sense as though they are as mechanical and externally sourced as the wetware. Her access to future-internet, which is constantly accessible, allows a surreal “the world-next door” feeling, particularly in her conversations with people planets away, and with Cohen (a sentient AI, ex-lover, friend) whose nature makes him mutable, flexible and simultaneously transient and eternal, ancient. The quantum technobabble is dense, inflexible and utterly necessary to help us understand what the hell is going on, and to my mind Moriarty does not handle it with as much grace as other aspects of the novel. The extraordinary technicality of her every move confines me as a reader, makes it harder for me to focus on the story as opposed to the nuts-and-bolts.
After a mission goes disastrously wrong, losing Li some of her team, shaking her trust in Cohen as a partner and ally, General Nguyen posts Li to Compson’s World to investigate the death of Hannah Sharifi, a construct-clone, a major scientist, who discovered/formulated Einstein-Bose transport among other things. Sharifi died in a flash fire that broke out in the AMC Einstein-Bose mines. Sharifi’s data is lost and the station’s field AI is incommunicado – Li must solve the mystery, find Sharifi’s data (she was looking for a way to make E-B synthetically, off Compson’s World).
It’s not easy. When Li gets to Compson’s World she must deal with: the miner’s unions (more on this later), her forgotten past self, her tricky relationship with Cohen (who is fighting for Emergent AI rights), her still-healing body, the AMC representatives, the Syndicates, the miners themselves, Vi (a construct working to locate mineable ore), the Bore-Einstein ore itself – and none of these people have the same agenda; none of them can be trusted. All Li wants to get out with her job done and her skin in one piece, and she might not get either.
It’s very very wrong to say that you’re sad the Cold War is over, since it produced the best spy novels, but I am so. Spin State, with its unrelentingly paranoid, lonely Li, fits quite comfortably alongside my old favourites. With potential ally-enemies on every side, Li fumbles her way through a classic “Everyone knows what’s going on but you” police procedural.
Separate from Li’s angsts are the miners’ – the miners work hard at a job that they are underpaid to do. It kills them, slowly. It kills them slower if they’re constructs or have construct genealogy, but that just means they’ll work longer for worse. The people who benefit from their hard work live Ringside in luxury, and are trying desperately to find ways to shut down the condensate entirely and remove a potential hazard. Their option hopes are to leave the planet entirely – nearly impossible – or love the condensates they work to mine. Given that half these miners come from Belfast, the total effect is again of something set in the ’70s and ’80s, perhaps in Thatcher-led Britain. Of all the causes, the sides, in the novel, the miners’ are the ones I was rooting for.
And love. Spin State contains an unforgettable declaration of love, one that is quietly, blatantly, sincerely visualised. So much of the plot is driven by the actions of love, but the novel is never overwhelmed by this, never allows the sentiment more than a few moments of centre-stage.
[Someone has noted already – who? who? I cannot remember! – that Spin State and Elizabeth Bear’s Undertow share several elements – a Doohickey that fuels interstellar travel and communication is only available on one planet. The people responsible for the collection of said Doohickey work under terrible working conditions. Everything is quantum. Someone dies, this death instigates large amounts of the following plot. So if you’ve read Undertow and liked it, or read it and hated it, you should try Spin State.]
Spin State‘s pacing is hampered by its technobabble burden, but it manages nonetheless to race headlong into further half-glimpses of truth and lies. One has a building sense of hopelessness, for Li, for Compson’s World. But last climactic moments are superbly done – by this point Moriarty’s hard work with the technicalities has allowed her to transcend them, giving us a plausible tying up of most of the threads. The ending is, well, justifiable and well-anticipated wish-fulfilment, and satisfies one for the story in its entire, whatever one might feel for the individual sub-plots.
As a stand-alone novel, Spin State is an engrossing, sometimes awkward read. As the first in a series, it has great potential and is in fact fantastic. I recommend it highly to those of you who’re looking either for new agent fiction or hard SF.