Category Archives: Science Fiction

Spin Control by Chris Moriarty

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.


Spin State by Chris Moriarty

Cover by Stephen Youll

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.

To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis

Cover art by Eric Dinyer

2057. Historian Ned Henry (specialising in the late 20th century) has made so many jumps to various points in the past that he now suffers from time lag. This makes him incapable of following simple conversation, understanding or obeying instructions, thinking prosaically or otherwise function as a normal human being. His work time has been hijacked by one Lady Shrapnell, who is intent on rebuilding, restoring and otherwise refabricating Coventry’s apparently famous Cathedral, last seen standing during the Second World War before a bunch of Nazis bombed the shit out of it. Lady Schrapnell has not just hijacked Henry’s work hours – she has every historian Oxford can offer her (and some they can’t) combing the past, researching the minutiae of the Cathedral’s construction, decoration, vestry adornments, what-have-you. Ned Henry’s particular task is to find “The Bishop’s Bird Stump”. Much like the Scarlet Pimpernel, said Bird Stump’s present location cannot be ascertained. It cannot have burned during the air raid, since for reasons of hideous monstrosity it is indestructible; Lady Schrapnell is determined, with a voluble, bullying obduracy, to find out what happened to it, and if possible place it in the reconstructed Cathedral. In another life, Lady Schrapnell was probably Bertie Wooster’s Aunt Agatha (of glass-chewing, werewolf lunar howling fame).

His extreme time-lag means that Henry needs a vacation, now. Lady Schrapnel will not have any malingering, so he also needs his vacation far away, where she will not go. Conveniently, another historian has brought about a Catastrophe which can only be solved by sending someone back to the Victorian era with a simple set of instructions to follow – and once that is done, he can stay there as long as he likes, should he need the rest.

Ned Henry and Verity Kindle (who caused the Catastrophe) go back to 1888, to contact Tossie Mering (Lady Schrapnel’s ancestor, whose diary bears close examination), fix the Catastrophe, have assorted adventures with cats, dogs, fish, eccentric Oxford dons, Church bazaars, uppity Butlers, all while maintaining perfect Victorian decorum and searching for the perfect man for Tossie.

I’m not sure I’d recommend To Say Nothing of the Dog to a historian, or to a history buff. While I find the novel hilarious and engaging, with a breakneck plot that never stops fizzing here and there and elsewhere, I must admit it is not a very plausible story, nor is it one that has room for much suspension of disbelief. Further, for historians, Ned Henry and Verity Kindle show more expertise with Victorian poetry, Jerome K. Jerome and early 20th century crime fiction than they do with historical trends beyond the broad strokes  and of course, a load of useless trivia regarding the Cathedral. The relationships within the novel – set in the Victorian period or in the 21st century – are all fairly heavily influenced by P.G. Wodehouse’s style (the only thing missing from one of the sequences is the obligatory waggling about the cries of “My Mate!”), and heavily rose-coloured by such romantics as Dorothy L. Sayers. The entire novel reads as an extended to homage to Wodehouse, Jerome, shades of O. Henry and Peter Wimsey (possibly some Agatha Christie, but I never read her much). Somewhere in between all these devotions is Connie Willis, but it’s rather hard to get a proper hold of her.

A further problem is that we never learn the precise mechanism of the time travel device, generally called “the net” – it self-regulates to ensure nothing can be brought back from the past to the present (our future!) and that no ghastly paradoxes are allowed. (When necessary, the net will simply not open out onto a period of vulnerability to time tampering.) It’s never made clear how the net works with the continuum of time, how sentient “it” or the continuum is, how it does what it does… we do have a lot of technobabble, but it is technobabble, pretending to explain what it only describes. Since so very much of the novel’s many, many exigencies are dependant on the net and the continuum, this can be a problem.

And yet. I found To Say Nothing of the Dog a delightful, fun, relaxing read —  a welcome change from all the doom and gloom, ‘the future of this city hangs in the balance’ sort of fiction I’ve been reading lately. If you’re looking for some light reading, or have a yen for some Wodehouse or  you’d like to read about life on the river, I recommend it highly!

Chill by Elizabeth Bear

Art by Philip Lee Harvey

Chill is the second novel in Elizabeth Bear‘s Jacob’s Ladder trilogy.

[First, a complaint: it annoys me when abook in a series is not clearly marked as being part of a series. I want “Part Two of the Jacob’s Ladder series” or “The thrilling phantasmagorical sequel to DUST, with extra monsters!” clearly noted somewhere, preferably near/in the blurb or on the front cover. Would it ruin some wonderful marketing strategy? Chill does not have the words “sequel” or the phrase “Jacob’s Ladder trilogy” in the blurb or on the cover. It does mention the ship, named Jacob’s Ladder, but this tells the uninformed reader nothing about any trilogies or prequels. Information!fail, Bantam Spectra! But, hey, congratulations on having lived for 25 years.]

Dust ended with the Jacob’s Ladder barely escaping annihilation via nova explosion. Perceval had won captaincy of the ship by the skin of her celibate teeth; Rien had sacrificed herself to integrate the ship’s “angel”; the Conns were relearning the parameters of the ship’s original mission; the Ladder needs to be resettled, rebuilt, and re-mapped; the Conns’ inter/intra-warring is not yet done. Perceval and her allies – and her enemies – are incapacitated by recovery and by grief.

If I were them I’d’ve given up the day as  lost and gone back to bed.

Dust focused on the two heroes – Rien and Perceval – on their journey through the ship to prevent a war and bring their allies together to negotiate a cease-fire. Against the two women we see Jacob Dust, the ship’s sentient archive, intent on gaining complete control over the ship’s integrated AI, and control too over Perceval, to captain under his charge. But if Perceval became Captain, Rien submersed herself in the AI, integrated the fractured systems and placed the final product at Perceval’s disposal. Dust was tightly structured in the dual heroes’ quest against a single ultimate opponent who could not stand against their combined martyrdom and authority.

Chill opens the stage out to more characters, giving us a fragile fellowship of Conns and more jaded, even sophisticated points of view. Characters whom we have only seen through Rien’s and Perceval’s eyes now have their own individual voices. While it is far less romantic, it is much more interesting. Perceval and Rien (such as Rien is and was) are much more peripheral – Chill’s protagonists are older Conn relatives, whom we see through their own eyes as they try to support the ship or run after their own sister/granddaughter/etc. (the Conns are so incestuously intra-related I never bothered to keep track of who was related to whom how). This means that we have more perspectives on the events of the novel, and a greater geographic questing over the worldship, damaged as it is.

The older Conn Exalted spend far too much time naval-gazing, contemplating their flaws and weaknesses – frankly I am surprised it took until the events of Dust for someone to kill off the Conn patriarch, who was a nasty piece of shit work. Arianrhod Conn runs around with a piece of non-integrated angel, while Tristan and Benedick Conn run their separate (and later joint) quests to find her. Cyric Conn plays a ruthless hand through what must have been an extraordinary amount of planning and execution. (In many ways she and Rien are the heroes of this novel, though both of them are dead. The events of Chill are precipitated more by their actions before they died than by anything else we hear of.)

All this running around and naval-gazing has an immediately obvious disadvantage – the novel’s pacing is somewhat choppy, with no easy fix. Bear also chooses to let significant events occur in the invisible-to-readers blink of an eye, reported to us only after the fact. Those particular scenes worked better for me on the reread, because the first time I would wonder if I had skipped a page or two. Add in a monster (trailing behind Jacob’s Ladder the way daddy issues trail behind the Conns) whose perspective is narrated in the second person – look, I liked the monster, I want everyone to know that there was a monster, but the second person is not always the best way to place a monster in its alien monstrosity.

For all these prosaic flaws, Chill is still a good sequel to Dust, particularly because there are so many avenues for Grail, next and last in the series, to explore (literally and metaphorically). Chill has monsters, incestuous and murderous faux-feudalists in space(!), angels, Captains, necromancers, coincidental wooly mammoths and snakes. I would not recommend this as a stand-alone, but as the second, bridging work in a series, it is just right. If you read and liked Dust, I strongly recommend Chill.

Cover art by Paul Youll

Dust by Elizabeth Bear.

Art by Paul Youll

Dust is the first of the Jacob’s Ladder series, by Elizabeth Bear.

[First, a complaint: it annoys me when the first book in a series is not clearly marked as the first book in a series. I do not want the publishers to leave little clues like, for instance, an advert for the next book in the series (“And look for CHILL: The second book in the Jacob’s Ladder sequence”). Obviously a smart girl would check the inside cover, read the blurb at the back, make the connection between Jacob Dust and Jacob’s Ladder. But I am not a smart girl. I buy books for their outside blurbs and the cover page (the text under the title reads “Can a broken angel save a broken world?”); I want “Part One of the Jacob’s Ladder series” clearly noted somewhere, preferably near the blurb or on the front cover. Would it ruin some wonderful marketing strategy? Information!fail, Bantam Spectra!]

Dust is one of those wonderful stories that puts faux-feudal factions in a  technologically magical future. (In space!) Rien is a servant in Rule, where the Conn family, incestuous, murderous and Exalted, are in charge. Rule is at war with Engine, and today Ariane Conn has captured Sir Perceval, who is an Exalt of Engine. The first time we see Sir Perceval she is a prisoner, bleeding blue blood (a sign that she is “Exalted” with nanogene technology), and Ariane has cut off her wings. Through Rien’s eyes Perceval is a picture of desecrated nobility, brave but broken. She is ordered to tend to Perceval and she does, and right at the start a fragile power balance is set between the two – Perceval is Exalt, an angel-demon without her wings, Rien is her caretaker and guard, later saviour. The details change, but the two maintain this equality in narrative, perspective and role throughout the novel.

To avert a war between Rule and Engine, and the disastrous loss of life that would follow, Rien breaks Perceval (who, by the way, is her half-sister) out of prison, so that the two can find their father, Benedict Conn. They travel across half the world – to be specific, their worldship, Jacob’s Ladder – to find this man, and the novel covers their Heroic Quest.

I’m a sucker for torn-off wings, but Dust gives me something even better – an entity with god-like powers who crafts a new set for Perceval. The new wings are a double-edged gift to fulfill some as yet unknown agenda. Jacob Dust is the Angel of Memory, and he watches over Perceval and Rien with a cold fondness, using the new wings as a conduit for information and control over Perceval’s body. The struggle between Rule and Engine is mirrored in Dust’s struggles with other Angels – specifically Samael, Angel of Death. The two (and others, but these are the ones we see the most) parley, negotiate, compromise and engage directly over the bodies and agencies of Rien and Perceval, who thus are Archetypes not only for their Heroes’ Journey, but for their opposed homes, their evolving social and ethical statuses, and the ultimate fate of their ship-world.

Of course, as Rien and Perceval run here, there and along to meet Benedict Conn, they meet along the way healers, necromancers, a basilisk, lost-and-found uncles, Angels, remnants of Angels, random zombies, and of course, their parents. At some point we find why precisely the worldship is so anarchic, enough of a back story to make us wonder, hunger for more, and a reason beyond “Why can’t we all be friends?” to have someone win, take over, be In Charge. The pacing is fluid without being rushed, and the two main characters (and their allies, enemies, whoever) have a very refreshing manner of moving on from unsolvable crises to the moments where they can actually do something. Their self-control is impressive but not unbelievable, and the evolution of that self-control, and their relationship, is nicely handled.

While I revel in my Medieval Fantastic Stories in Space!, I am extremely confused by overly tangled family situations or alliances, and through a combination of incest, murder, autocratic patriarchy and good old-fashioned lost history, Dust left me more than a little bewildered. At one point I made notes of all the Angels, and a family tree – while most of the details are just little red herrings added for verisimilitude and a complete back story, I found them distracting and ultimately rather frustrating, since I needed to keep a lot of trivia in mind for when they might be needed.

On the other hand, this wealth of detail made for an excellent reread, and was a factor in how very much I liked Chill, the next book in the sequence.

I ought to say something about the novel’s climactic resolution – its vivid love, pain, inevitable settlement, but I just did.

Bear’s prose tends a bit too much towards dramatic sentences beginning with “And”, but there’s no denying that she has a wonderful way of providing a material tangibility to very rarefied atmospheres. There’s a great precision to the action – both physical and emotional – and there’s no beating the final, Gothic  product. (In space!)

Read it!

The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway

(Camilla is going to have to forgive me. I’ve read Nick Harkaway‘s allegedly brilliant, definitely funny, undeniably clever The Gone-Away World two and a half times, and due to no fault of the book’s – well, very few – I have never liked it much. This is partially because I was in a terrible mood each time I read it, partially because I am not fond of the particular structural format, and partially because I read a particular Gaiman and a particular Pratchett before I read it the first time and so figured out a particular character plot point before it was “shown”.

Anyway, first I shall complain, then I shall get to the good bits. If I were you I would read this review from finish to start.)

The Gone-Away World

By Nick Harkaway

I love this cover, it expresses the intended feel of the book perfectly

The narrator of The Gone-Away World establishes himself in quick order as observant, quiet, judgmental, something of a non-entity and yet somehow unable to shut up. I don’t know whether it is Harkaway (I’m afraid I don’t read his blog very often and so cannot be sure) – who is certainly clever enough that maybe in the real world he finds himself having to explain things over and over again to people slower than he is or less funny or who speak a different language – or whether non-entities in general need more words to fill up their empty spaces. But the narrator, whom I call Babycakes since he is so non-entitous he doesn’t give us a name, will tell you something. A while later he will tell you the same thing in a different way. Both times he is clever, and funny. But the third time he tells you something you want to strangle him, Harkaway and his best friend Gonzo. (Just on principle.)

Um. Right. Babycakes works with “Haulage & HazMat Emergency Civil Freebooting Company of Exmoor County (corporate HQ the Nameless Bar, CEO Sally J. Culpepper, presiding)“. Aside from establishing himself as an over-wordy non-entity, he also goes on to be unreliable and to make fun of someone named “Washburn“. No matter how pathetic, showy and yucky the corporate drone in question, this just makes me dislike him more.

Ahem. The world is in ruins. The Pipe surrounds the Liveable areas, the Border marks the “Here There Be Dragons (and Pirates)” land between the Liveable zone and the Unreal. No one wants anything to do with the Unreal, and the Pipe is the only thing between Liveable zones and complete hysterical chaos.

The Pipe is on fire. This is a catastrophe, worse since the world it threatens only barely clawed itself together after The Go-Away War, and someone – enter Sally Culpepper and her dashing, unwashed posse (actually I daresay they’re all very clean, but I cannot for the life of me see them that way) – must save the day. In return, the corporate semi-drone offers them sexy new trucks. Two to a truck, (Babycakes rides passenger with Gonz0) and off they go!

At which point the narrator flashes backwards to his and Gonzo’s childhoods, and takes half a book and more to bring them back to their shiny new badass trucks. So in the second chapter I decided that I would pretend that this book used the same general motif in the Pratchett and the Gaiman novels I had read just before.

I dislike this particular sort of frame story, since it fools me into thinking of the middle of the story – in this case, setting off to stop a fire – as the beginning, and the flashback as important background that is still wasting my time until I get back to the beginning.  It’s a good ruse at info-dump, but it is still a way to get through the not-as-exciting bildungsroman by promising you that at some point there will be fire. But I am definitely in a minority on this one.

In between massive info/opinion dumps, taken by Babycakes and everyone else who exists to inform and otherwise attempt to develop him, skirting around Psychology, Capitalism and Bad Ergonomics 101, Babycakes and Gonzo make friends. Babycakes is unofficially adopted into Gonzo’s family, they grow up, and they have shenanigans. Gonzo is the charismatic do-now guy, Babycakes is the shadowy sidekick.

There are Masters with ninja enemies. There are girls, mostly unreachable. There is school, and Uni, and jobs after. There is the military, and military secrets. There are many, many, many cool guys who try to teach Babycakes how to be badass. (Gonzo is naturally somewhat badass, while not all the black leather in the world can make Babycakes any less verbose or lost.)

There is a War. Babycakes falls in love, gets married, meets Iraqi the local politicians/heroes/better men than he/pirates in small cars – and through a series of accidents and stupid moments, enough bombs (okay, let’s be fair, these bombs are cool [save my sinning pacifist soul for saying this); in essence, they remove information from matter, which means that the matter in question no longer exists – it Goes Away) are set off by enough nations (even Switzerland! There’s cynicism for you) to make most of the world unliveable).

It’s the apocalypse, and we did it ourselves.

All is not lost. There are clever pirates, and clever scientists who can make FOX, which is so information-rich the Go-Away stuff can’t cross it, and a massive project to lay down the Jorgmund Pipe cements Gonzo, Babycakes, the wife (who clearly exists just to be the wife and so I am not bothering to tell you her name) and the rest of their crew into the Company, led by Culpepper, that Freeboots.

Here there be dragons.

And, back at the beginning, there be excitement, and crisis, and tragedy.

Name me another story where a man steals his brother’s wife?

The Gone-Away World is weighed down by the amount of information the narrator/author assumes the reader needs to be taught. Over and over. But it’s, for all my irritation, a clever story – it’s written by a geek, for geeks, and for every recognisable trope is a moment of subversion – even that unreliable narrator. I suspect that if I had not read that Pratchett and then that Gaiman, I would have put down that book irritated only with the awkward verbosity, the sometimes clumsiness of communication.

There are pirates, ninjas, mimes and bees. There are families, of blood and of heart. There are narrators who suddenly thrust out into the world must retrace their steps to find out who they are, and what they must do. There are brothers who must be saved, beloved mentors who must be avenged. There are Corporations. There are people, whether we want to call them people or not. There is much, much paper, and an extraordinary amount of coolth.

This is a wild, fully-packed novel, observant, cynical, waving the geek-pride flag without sitting in the previous generation’s basement. The action sequences are beautiful – the prose here being both slow and exciting enough to have you hooked and unable to put the book down. There’s a final scene that reminds me very much of Buffy, whom I love, and so maybe on a day when I forget Pratchett and Gaiman I shall try this book again, give it another chance.

Caveat Lector

Solaris by Stanislaw Lem

Lem's Solaris page

[Points to note before I continue: My copy of Solaris purports to be the 1970 translation (Polish –> French –> English) by Joanna Kilmartin and Steve Cox. Said copy is extremely dodgy, for reasons I shall not explicitly state but which any reasonably internet-savvy policeperson can guess. So if I talk about something and you go, what the hell that wasn’t in the book, it is the fault of my dodgy copy. (I forgot to order it, mkay? It’s not locally available.)

I’m not going to harp on and on about the prose. To recap: The English translation used the French translation as its source text. Lem sold the rights to the book to his Polish publishers way back when, and for whatever reason, they have not commissioned another translation, despite what wikipedia assures me if the general hue and cry for it. Apparently Lem’s other works – Cyberiad at the very least – received more attention, and therefore did not flatly lump around in English, describing a great deal in monotone grey.]

Solaris was my first (only) Lem, and it’s  stayed with me for years because of what I consider to be the utter beauty of its closing moments. (More and more, the fact that I have not ordered a copy looks like wilful negligence.)

Kris Kelvin (who is not a Superhero, alas) leaves the Prometheus in a little space capsule that takes him down to Solaris, an extremely watery planet with one single, very likely living, sentient ocean. He is to join Gibarian, Snow and Sartorius in finding ways to establish Contact with the ocean – Contact remains the Holy Grail of all Solarists, and over the course of a hundred years, a great deal of capital, labour and sundry other investments, several missions and a good few lives, no one has managed to do anything other than establish that the ocean is alive, is fairly up-to-date on quantum physics, and maintains itself in ways impossible to interpret, translate or otherwise understand.

The opening few pages of Solaris establish Kris Kelvin as an observant man, an impatient one. It also establishes one of the quieter themes of the novel – Kelvin, and every one else in this novel, and presumably the rest of humanity, are in a symbiotic relationship with their racially constructed instruments. Their things. Kelvin falls from Prometheus to Solaris, and everything he sees is filtered through his capsule, his suit. When he reaches the Station the first signs of disorder are apparent in the mess left when things are not cleared up. Kelvin is greeted, somewhat belatedly, by Snow, a renowned cybernetist and Gibarian’s deputy on Solaris. Snow is, to put it mildly, distraught, terrified, drunk. Kelvin’s careful, methodical observational approach to life fall apart as he is immersed in Snow’s paranoia, and his own oppressive sense of being watched, pressured – this almost surreal paranoia doesn’t let up until almost the end of the novel. Snow is perhaps in the worst possible state to welcome a new member of the team. Sartorius is ensconced in his lab, Gibarian is, apparently, dead, and no one will tell Kelvin what is going on. Kelvin is your generally calm, competent scientist/researcher, but his first response to this perpetual mystery and stone-walling is to lose his temper, and to do something.

What is happening? The scientists on the station are being visited be seemingly authentic, exact personifications of their deepest shames and concerns. For Kelvin, this is Rheya (Harvy in the original) – his wife who committed suicide ten years ago. Rheya, following what other personifications of the other scientist’s manifestations have presumably done, appears while Kelvin is asleep, with no memory of how she came to be there or what happened, with no idea that she is not “real”. When Kelvin sends her away in a space shuttle, a new Rheya appears the next morning.

We never see Snow’s and Sartorius’ ‘visitors’. From their general behaviour, once realises that Kelvin got off lucky, with his young Anais-Nin-esque wife. Sartorius and Snow display a frantic terror barely kept under wraps, dealing with their ghosts in their own, now very nonfunctional ways.

While they wrestle with the problems of how to make their ‘visitors’ go away, Kelvin has embraced Rheya – a second chance for him to love his wife, conceptualised now perfectly on his terms – and does not want her to die.

And all the while, the planet is watching.

While it is assumed the ocean below is learning about them through their simulated, manifested subconscious personae, they in turn cannot understand the ocean below. Why is it doing this? What are these “visitors” made of? Are they “real”, “alive”?

Solaris is a Structuralist’s extended wet dream about humanity’s immersion in its own symbols, our incapacity to look outside of these constructs to understand an outside alien force that is not immersed in these constructs. And vice versa. The ocean cannot understand us at the conscious level – as far as human science can tell, there is only one ocean, one unit of life on the planet as it is. Even if Contact could be coherently established, what would it benefit either party?

As tensions rise and Kelvin, Snow and Sartorius debate what they must report back to Earth, what they must recommend, what they must do, Rheya – seemingly unlike other “visitors” – learns what she is, or rather what she isn’t. Her own struggle is not overtly expressed save through Kelvin, who is our only narrator. I liked Rheya, and how we see this real, unreal person face issues in her own way, always unexpected by the man who is her “source”, and who acts as though he’s her maker. Rheya, both Rheyas, are a Pyrrhic victory of self-definition.

Solaris is so chock-full of exposition and theory that it is hard to see what its plot is. Kelvin shows up at the tail end of a long, horrible, terrifying time, and closes his narrative before any final actions are taken.  But there is so much theorising, so much exposition – let me note here that Kelvin is, for once, a scientist who reminds me of scientists who write for the public today. He shows the same knowledge of his field not just as a science but as an area of human society with schools of thought, a culture, and most importantly a history. It makes for fascinating reading, and I enjoyed Solaris best at these “popular science” moments – there is so much exposition of Things To Consider that I do not feel like the plot-limitations detract. However, if you’re looking for an exciting novel with brash, cocky, feisty, brilliant scientists who kick the conservative establishments arse and ride off into the ocean sunset with dolphins, you’re reading the wrong book.

For the other scientists in particular one gathers the impression of a torment that has drawn out too long. Kelvin is not a bad man, or an insensitive one, but under this time of stress he is not the most perceptive, nor is this time of stress perhaps one that lends itself to bonding and shared strength, however much one might wish it. Kelvin himself is a solid, obviously alive character, but we learn very little about his life, his times, himself as a man. Rheya is our only clue to what sort of person he is outside of work. I found this absence of knowledge both frustrating and satisfying. Solaris is not about the individual humans on the Station; it is about Solaris.

I’ve already mentioned that final scene. It’s a gentle closing, haunting, almost graceful. It reminds the reader in English of Solaris’ inadvertently hidden strength – a rich, descriptive narrative that shows us very clearly this world we cannot understand.

I wouldn’t recommend it for everybody. But I like it!

Read an excerpt!