City of Pearl: IV

City of Pearl cover


Here’s another quote, from rather later in the novel, just after Lindsay, who managed to get herself pregnant before the mission left Earth, has given birth.

“He could do with some more milk, if you’re up to expressing some.”

Not more tubes. He was too weak even to feed properly. She laid him down in the cot again with a breaking heart. Every instinct in her body said she should forget common sense and take him somewhere quiet to comfort and nurse him. But Hugel was a doctor, and knew better. And Lindsay was an officer, the ranking officer now that Shan was out of action.

“I’ll get on with it,” she said. (311)

This is such a brusque examination of the maternal instinct that it feels little more than functional, a device to remind us that humans are animals, but set up and dismissed in a couple of sentences so that Lindsay, and the narrative, can get on with it. Quite a lot of City of Pearl felt like this to me: it is an almost exhaustingly direct novel, with a quite narrow emotional range; like a more cynical John Scalzi, or a less schematic Isaac Asimov. What’s interesting is how this style dovetails with the novel’s content.

Constantine, we are told, is “a transparent sort of place” (61), not somewhere of great complexity or nuance, with a symbolic fascination with glasswork. More than that, the native life on bezer’ej is often see-through, as a camouflage strategy; the planet, Shan concludes, “was a transparent world” (194). The wess’har, as I’ve already described, are a moral position embodied as its extreme to enable contrast and conflict, and deployed with no ambiguity whatsoever, the dilemmas their laws produce being the equivalent of 24’s ticking bombs, in that they distort a situation beyond all likely reality to justify an extreme response. And the grand climax of Shan’s narrative is an audience with a wess’har matriarch for which she is told that she must speak with absolute directness: “Shan made a conscious effort to remove the automatic tendency to edit what she thought before it escaped her mouth. It had taken many, many years to learn to do that. Now she had to unlearn it” (355).

Not infrequently, this all starts to feel like an indulgence of the worst of sf’s world-simplifying tendencies. Yet running alongside all of the above is a determined effort to complicate choices and confuse boundaries. The wess’har are imposing their morality on others, and are resisted by the isenji. A third group of humans arrive completely without warning, with their own agenda. Constantine turns out to be not just as transparent as glass, but as fragile, an artificial ecology maintained within the native bezer’ej landscape. And – most symbolically – towards the end of the book, Aras deliberately infects Shan with c’naatat to save her life, and Shan begins to change. Judged alone, I think I would have to find City of Pearl wanting; but the dynamics it establishes are so clearly set to evolve over successive books that I can easily believe the series ends up in a more complex place.

City of Pearl: III

City of Pearl cover


We’re presumably meant to see the decision to arrange the execution of the offending scientist as the sort of thing Shan Frankland’s recruiter had in mind when insisting that the expedition needed “a government representative there who isn’t afraid of hard decisions” (16). And if the decision isn’t that hard in the end, it’s a shame not only because it simplifies Aras for our consumption, but because it diminishes Shan, who is otherwise probably the best thing about City of Pearl.

An efficient ex-cop, Shan is – according to Eddie Michallat, the expedition’s rather irritating journalist – “not plump big, womanly big, but tall, athletic, hard big”, and deeply, occasionally comically, cynical about human nature. She is a baseline human, primarily, we a told, thanks to the pagan beliefs she inherited from her mother, giving her — in a world where the unaltered are becoming less common than the altered — a “hint of wildness and savagery”. She has a temper, and a brain; and most important, to me, she is a professional. For all her physical capability, called on several times over the course of the novel, she is a serious person who takes her job seriously: a rare enough type in science fiction at all, but particularly distinctive amongst the impoverished array of contemporary female characters. Her self-confidence makes her an effective counter to the eternally mutable Aras, and in fact makes her somewhat irresistible to his matriarch-conditioned brain: he finds her no-nonsense manner distinctly wess’har, and increasingly has to fight the urge to defer to her will.

Shan’s other important relationship in City of Pearl is with Lindsay Neville, who would have been leading the expedition had Shan not been installed at the last minute. Lindsay is young military authority, Shan is older civilian authority; unsurprisingly they have rather different ways of doing things. For Lindsay, death is “nothing personal […] all neat and sanctioned and under rules of engagement. After you’d killed them, you would stand at memorial parades and say what an honourable enemy they were”; while Shan “got to know her targets far too well, and honor never came into it” (211). Their headbutting, and eventual tentative respect, is rather nicely done.

It’s hard to say that Shan’s interaction with the rest of her expedition’s members is handled as well. That she doesn’t like the scientists she has to look after – describing them almost exclusively as “payload” – is fine, but there is never an equivalent of the detente with Lindsay, or even the potential for one. What’s missing – aside from brief diary extracts at the start of a couple of chapters – is the viewpoint of a scientist, which leaves them little more than ciphers, and makes incidents like that involving the bezeri child feeling even more lopsided. The payload are the ones who cause trouble, the ones who – astonishingly – we are meant to believe see sentient aliens as just a kind of animal, the ones who just won’t follow orders, god dammit. They are, in fact, the villains of the piece; which would be more interesting if they weren’t also the novel’s truest Other.


City of Pearl: II

City of Pearl cover


City of Pearl is, on one level, another entry into the proud tradition of brutal challenges to the Campbellian notion that humanity is a special case. Its particular lens for focusing this argument is ecological: the wess’har, or at least the ones we meet in this novel, are environmental fundamentalists who consider all living things to have equal rights – Aras refers to rats as “people” – and who live with as little imposition on other beings as possible. They’re also possessed of a technology level capable of wiping out large cities – say, those of the isenj – and restoring the landscape left behind to a wilderness state without too much difficulty, which makes them exactly the people you don’t want to have taken custody of a planet when you’d like to settle on it.

The first humans to reach Bezer’ej are spared by dint of the fact that they carry a gene bank of Earthly life, and found the agrarian Christian commune of Constantine. A later expedition of scientists with a military guard, led by City of Pearl’s protagonist Shan Frankland, is allowed to land because Aras is curious; it’s a decision he comes to regret.

The conflict between wess’har and human psychology and morality has strengths and weaknesses. On the plus side, having a viewpoint character with such an absolutist worldview as does Aras enables Traviss to throw her readers off balance every so often, to make them question their assumptions – as with the remark about rats noted above, or as when Aras corrects Josh, the leader of Constantine, about humans “detecting” other alien species, rather than “discovering” them; or when Josh himself mentally tuts that Shan only recognises Bezer’ej as “inhabited” when there are sentient aliens in the frame. And the colonists of Constantine, who carried their own ecological morality with them from Earth but have followed the wess’har’s lead, philosophically, during the decades of their tenure, are an interesting bunch that I wouldn’t have minded spending more time with.

But as the narrative (inevitably) heads towards conflict, it stumbles. When he allows Shan and her companions to land, Aras sets some ground rules, of which the most important is “no samples of living material”: not a blade of alien grass. It’s clear almost immediately that for most of the scientists in Shan’s party this is an unacceptable restriction on their research, but it’s not until half-way into the book that one of them manages to pick up what appears to be a dead organism from the shore and bring it back to base camp. When that happens, some of the party do object, but the scientist in question locks herself away and begins a dissection before Shan arrives to stop her.

This, of course, is enough to initiate a diplomatic crisis, and for a few pages it looks like a quite interesting one: the scientist’s actions are against wess’har morality, and though they surely have the right, and the power, to set the local rules, they can’t help seeming excessive to us; while even as we disapprove of the scientist’s actions, it’s hard not to feel some sympathy for her curiosity. (She has, after all, given up her life for the opportunity to visit another world: with slower-than-light journeys and cryogenic suspension, nobody she knew on Earth is going to be alive when she returns.) But quite quickly it’s revealed that the organism wasn’t dead, after all; and moreover that it wasn’t just any organism, it was a juvenile bezeri; and so the scientist, monstrously, has been dissecting a living child. This, I can’t help feeling, is much less interesting, because it horrifies us as much as the wess’har, which means that when Aras demands the death penalty for the scientist’s crimes, it’s a demand that comes from a recognisable place (even if we abjure capital punishment ourselves). How much more challenging it would have been to empathise with Aras if the scientist’s actions had been a crime by wess’har standards only.


City of Pearl: I

(With profuse apologies for belatedness, here’s the start of my discussion of the Future Classic for July, Karen Traviss’ first novel City of Pearl. A bit of a curate’s egg…)

City of Pearl cover


Here are a couple of sentences from very near the start of City of Pearl:

Aras mimicked the lettering, copying it into the unspoiled snow beside him with a steady claw. He considered it, then brushed it away. (1-2)

Does anything here bother you? Personally, I’m bothered by that pronoun. From the claw at the end of the first of these sentences, and the fact that we know we’re starting a science fiction novel, we infer – correctly – that Aras is an alien. But for an organism not from our biosphere, how meaningful is the male pronoun likely to be? It would be understandable as the imposition of a human point of view, as in, say, Mary Gentle’s Golden Witchbreed, but there are no human characters in this scene, or indeed on the planet at this point. Later, we are told that Aras’ species, the wess’har, are matriarchal: their women are big and few and occupy ruling positions, while their men are in thrall to the feminine, and have stronger nurturing instincts. But because that initial pronoun is pure narrative imposition, the complication of the pronoun seems like an arbitrary trick. Had Traviss chosen to make Aras “she”, she could have almost as easily described wess’har society as ruled by men with enormous harems. And that bothers me, because it makes the authorial fiat involved in constructing an alien society more visible than I would like it to be.

That aside, the fact that City of Pearl includes a non-human perspective is something to be admired, and the other ways in which it is complicated are more satisfying. Aras is the last of a soldier caste, infected with a virus or micro-organism (it’s not entirely clear) his people call c’naatat that exacerbates the already-high mutability of his genetic code to enable him to adapt rapidly to environmental threats – such as, say, otherwise lethal wounds – and incorporate useful traits from other species with whom he comes into contact. This is junk science, but a very useful fictional device. As soon as Aras has touched a human, we have an excuse for the inevitable humanness of his point of view; and once (inevitably) one of the human characters becomes infected by c’naatat, you have a beautiful model system in which to play out some ideas about the self and the other.

As the first in a series of six, City of Pearl doesn’t push this notion as far or as fast as you might hope, and there are other things in its portrayal of the alien that don’t quite work – including some spectacularly ill-judged names, such as the capital city of F’nar. But by the end of the novel you do believe in the wess’har as an independent species with their own distinct culture and behavioural principles, literal and logical but without the obtuseness often assumed to accompany those characteristics. Moreover there are reasons to believe that the cultures of two of the other three species who claim a stake in the world Aras guards – namely the native, squiddish bezeri and the expansionist, arachnoid isenj – will be further developed to similarly satisfying effect. The fourth species with skin in the game, of course, is us.



Wireless by Charles Stross (Orbit, 2009)
Reviewed by Martin Lewis

‘Missile Gap’, the novella that opens Wireless, is a pretty good encapsulation of Stross’s concerns as a writer. It takes place in the middle of the Cold War but on an Earth that has been radically altered and flung into another galaxy. The reconstruction of the planet into one flat plate on a vast disc brings with it gravitational changes that render the Space Race dead and flight difficult. These changes allow Stross to play with his love of abandoned engineering projects by introducing, for example, a vast nuclear-powered ekranoplan the size of an aircraft carrier. Piloted by Yuri Gagarin. Carl Sagan also appears as a character and there are many similar winks. So: a big picture hard SF idea, a Twentieth Century alt history, a strong awareness of the history of science fiction, a couple of in-jokes and some cool toys that never were. Like Ken MacLeod, Stross is looking towards the future with nostalgic eyes.

There is more of the same on display throughout Wireless. In fact, ‘Missile Gap’ is something of a retread of ‘A Colder War’, published five years previously. Gagarin and Sagan are replaced by Colonel Oliver North and Stephen Jay Gould, and the missile gap becomes a shoggoth gap, but otherwise they are the same, right down to the infodump chapters presented as classified briefing films with identical security warnings.

‘A Colder War’ is the only story which overlaps with Stross’ previous collection, Toast (2002), and this repetition makes its inclusion a mistake. It also points towards a lack of purpose in a collection which is almost-but-not-quite comprehensive and where Stross unfortunately uses his introduction to pointlessly justify his existence as a short story writer. Obviously the stories collected as the mosaic novel Accelerando (2005) are not reprinted here but only one of his three collaborations with Cory Doctorow appears (‘Unwirer’). Why this one, which feels more Doctorow than Stross in composition? Why include ‘MAXOS’, a joke about extraterrestrial 419 scammers that at three pages is still too long? ‘Down On The Farm’, part of the ongoing Bob Howard series that mashes Lovecraft (him again) with spy versus spy, is great fun – if clunkily structured – but is cut adrift from the rest of its continuity here. The impression is of a writer casting around for any material to hand, that the overriding reason for this collection is that Stross gets jittery if he doesn’t release at least two books a year.

The main selling point of Wireless is ‘Palimpsest’, an unpublished novella. A mix of time travel and deep time future history, it is a powerful piece but sabotaged by an afterword in which Stross makes clear that it should really be a novel, had industry requirements not dictated otherwise. I understand the travails of the jobbing writer – Stross has chronicled them well on his blog – but Wireless is so market-driven that any enjoyment of the stories was overwhelmed by a desire for less haste and graft and more reflection and quality control.

This review originally appeared in Vector #261.

Fools’ Experiments

Fools’ Experiments by Edward M Lerner (Tor, 2008)
Reviewed by Martin Lewis

Perhaps this is just an unfair prejudice of mine but as far as I’m concerned any book that uses sound effects is likely to be a bad book. In this case, at least, the cracks and thwocks and blats do indeed herald a writer with very little facility for the English language.

Edward M Lerner is a traditional SF writer in that he is an engineer who knows a lot about S and not much about F. After ghostwriting a couple of Ringworld prequels for them, this is his first novel proper for Tor and only adds to my sense that something has gone badly wrong with their quality control of late. Fools’ Experiments is a tedious technothriller doled out in 71 bite-sized (but not particularly thrilling) chapters. Although it is divided into thirds, rather than this being a classic three act structure we have a false start, the actual plot and then a pointless retread of the middle third. The story chiefly concerns the emergence of artificial life but the structure of the novel is so broken backed that it is initially hard to tell where our attention is meant to be focussed.

In keeping with the strictures of the technothriller format there are lots of viewpoint characters but they are all drawn so crudely that you would never mistake them for actual human beings. The main characters are initially Doug, a researcher in neural interfaces, and AJ, a researcher in artificial life. In order to differentiate between them Lerner makes Doug a lover of bad puns. He also (since Hollywood has taught him it would be unthinkable to do otherwise) pairs both of them up with hot chicks. Unbelievably in the case of the overweight, middle aged AJ this involves bagging the attractive IT reporter who is interviewing him with the line “nor do I want to know ahead of time what our children will be like.” (143) These poorly realised characters only add to the sense of dislocation as they can disappear for sixty pages at a time whilst the narrative wanders elsewhere and other characters spring up in their place. Not surprisingly Lerner is better with machines than humans. The section where an artificial intelligence breaks free from AJ’s lab, causing devastating to the surrounding area, actually lives up to the genre’s name. Even this becomes interminable after a while though.

RUMIR is a very useful acronym that Karen Burnham invented from an old Joanna Russ review that described a work as “routine, unoriginal, mildly interesting, and readable”. In five letters it sums up vast swathes of published SF and it could, charitably, be applied to this novel. Fools’ Experiments is not bad because it is a catastrophic failure, it is bad simply because there is absolutely nothing good about it. In some ways this is even worse, at least with a catastrophe there is a perverse pleasure in seeing what abomination the writer will come up with next. This novel just inspires supreme indifference.

This review originally appeared in Vector #260.

The Edge Of Reason

The Edge Of Reason by Melinda Snodgrass (Tor, 2009)
Reviewed by Martin Lewis

Imagine if Richard Dawkins was not only American but retarded. Imagine he taught himself to read using the work of illiterate megasellers like James Patterson and Tess Gerritsen. Imagine he further fleshed out his understanding of human nature on a diet of romance novels and misery memoirs. Finally, imagine he stayed up one night getting drunk and watching piss poor police procedurals before having the sudden brainwave of re-writing American Gods by Neil Gaiman. Imagine all that and you have imagined Melinda Snodgrass’s dire The Edge Of Reason and thus saved yourself the pain of actually reading it.

Our hero, Richard Oortz, is an East Coast blueblood concert pianist turned New Mexican policeman with a Terrible Secret. You might think this sounds unlikely and you would be right. He is also an extraordinarily good-looking bisexual gymnast whose DNA, unlike most of the rest of humanity, contains no magic. This last is of paramount importance because, counter-intuitively, it allows him to wield a magic sword that will save the world.

The idiotic plot revolves around the rather large co-incidence that the Devil also happens to live in Alberquerque (apparently this is because “it is a place where science and magic rub close”.) In a mind blowing twist, He is actually the good guy since he represents rationality and Oortz must unite with him to overthrow the tyranny of God. What follows is tosh to the nth degree, Snodgrass has somehow managed to harness the worst of the blockbuster thriller and paranormal romance genres. And if the plot is bad – lacking sense, structure and interest – then the writing is even worse. To take an example:

Lean Cuisine hefted light in the hand as if the contents of the package were as cardboard as the box. Richard hooked open the crisper drawer of the refrigerator with the tow of his shoe. Fresh bok choy, peppers and ginger flashed color and guilt at him. He would cook. (p82)

The rest of the prose is equally cloth-eared and over-wrought and the dialogue reads like the work of Elizabots. It was solely because of professional obligation that I read all the way to the end, only to be rewarded with a limp, open-ended conclusion that paves the way for equally appalling sequels.

The book’s jacket bizarrely claims that it is as controversial as The Golden Compass or The Illuminatus! Trilogy, possibly the only time those two books have been mentioned in the same sentence. The Golden Compass was controversial (in the US) because it was marketed at kids and suggested that organised religion wasn’t that great. The Illuminatus! Trilogy was controversial because it was an insane counter-culture conspiracy theory fuckfest. The Edge Of Reason is supposedly controversial because of the whole theological inversion thing but this is only going to shock you if you have parachuted in from the 19th Century (as Oortz appears to have done.) In fact, the only thing controversial about the book is that it ever made it into print from a major publisher like Tor.

This review originally appeared in Vector #258.