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Queen City Jazz, Kathleen Ann Goonan

June 10, 2011

Queen City Jazz, Kathleen Ann Goonan (1994)
Review by Cheryl Morgan

In Ian McDonald’s Kirinya novels, he asks what would happen to the world’s power structures if third world countries, in particular Africa, got hold of nanotechnology. He keeps it out of the hands of developed nations by making it so frightening that they don’t want anything to do with it. But the Africans have no choice, so they learn to adapt, and they grow powerful.

A very different approach is taken by Kathleen Ann Goonan in her novel, Queen City Jazz. She assumes that nanotechnology is developed in the West, but that it gets out of control. Civilisation is devastated, and those American citizens who survive live in fear of new nanoplagues, or dreadful, terrain transforming surges of assembler activity, emerging from the now shunned Flower Cities.

Flower Cities? Oh yes. After all, what is the point of being able to do anything if you don’t make it beautiful? I still contend that Moorcock’s Dancers at the End of Time is the first ever nanotechnology story. He understood, and Goonan understands, that a nanotech novel can be about art, and about the human soul.

But let’s begin with the flowers. Goonan’s view of nanotech is a very organic one. She vaults past the piecemeal engineering application of assembler technology and leaps straight into a philosophy of transformation. Her nanotech is deployed on a city-wide scale, touching buildings, the way we live, our very bodies. The assembler factories are in the form of giant flowers, kicking out pollen full of tiny machines that is distributed throughout the city by giant, intelligent bees. Like I said, if you can do anything, make it beautiful.

So what happens when this fabulous system gets out of control? Goonan seems to have been tapping into the same muse as Karen Armstrong, for without quite articulating it she has hit upon exactly the same fearful response: Fundamentalism. Nanotechnology has the potential to be scientific progress run riot. It is the ultimate in breakneck speed change. And so Goonan begins the novel in a Fundamentalist community in country Ohio. Cities which have been “Enlivened”, such as the great “Queen City” of Cincinnati, are looked upon as evil and must be shunned.

But Goonan goes further than Armstrong. Firstly she identifies another form of response to the modern world: retreat into fantasy. What I have called Disneyfication. Whereas Fundamenatalism is born out fear and becomes hatred, Disneyfication is born out of fear and becomes denial. Everything that is scary and challenging in the modern world is simply removed. And faced with these two forms of retreat, Goonan then has to produce an answer. A novel needs an ending after all. She finds it in another part of the American psyche, one ideally suited to the concept of change. I’m not saying any more than that.

That theme on its own would be a perfectly acceptable novel, but Goonan doesn’t stop there. She also has a literary argument to make. Nanotech is about the ability to take anything and change it. Jazz, yes that title is not there by accident, is about taking themes and changing them. Disneyfication is also about recycling, but whereas jazz looks for ideas in the existing theme and adds creativity to make something new and vital, Disneyfication removes content and meaning. I think you can follow the argument from there.

Hey, all that and virtually no mention of the plot. Of course the book has one, and actually I have talked quite a bit about it in an oblique sort of way. I was particularly impressed with the way Goonan took all that philosophy and wove it into a simple family drama. Or is that telling you too much? Dare I mention that besides all the above it also touches on trains and baseball? Or that it had enough literary references in it to leave me feeling as ill-educated as I do after reading a Kim Newman novel?

All of which is tended to say that this is a darn good book. Goonan has written two others, and I’m going to buy them as soon as I can find copies. Reviews will appear here in due course.

This review originally appeared on Emerald City.

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