Primary Inversion, Catherine Asaro

primary-inversion-catherine-asaroPrimary Inversion, Catherine Asaro (1995)
Review by Simon Petrie

Catherine Asaro’s Wikipedia page lists a formidable range of accomplishments. She has a doctorate in chemical physics, is a visiting professor at the University of Maryland, and teaches chemistry, physics and maths at various levels. (Her science pedigree is impressive: she’s published papers with Alex Dalgarno, and her father appears to have had something to do with the dinosaurs’ extinction.) She’s also performed as a ballet and jazz dancer, has served as an artistic director for two dance companies, and has collaborated (both as a lyricist and as a performer) with the rock group Point Valid on a science fiction / music project. She’s a past president of SFWA, and the author of a large number of SF novels, novellas, and collections. (I stopped counting at around two dozen.) She’s had numerous award nominations and wins, including Nebula awards for her novel The Quantum Rose (2001) and her novella ‘The Space-Time Pool’ (2008). Much of her SF qualifies as hard SF, and some even has diagrams.

As it turns out, Primary Inversion, contains neither diagrams nor formulae. It’s Asaro’s first published novel, dating from 1995, and is one of a large number in her Saga of the Skolian Empire (although it doesn’t technically mark the beginning of the Saga, since some subsequently-published books deal with preceding events. The Wikipedia page has a helpful flow diagram, to assist with following the timeline).

At the start of Primary Inversion, Sauscony Valdoria (“Soz”) is on rec leave with her team – the combat-hardened Rex and Helda, and the new recruit Taas – on the Allied (neutral-zone) planet of Delos. Sauscony is a Jagernaut, an elite FTL fighter pilot equipped with all manner of biomechanical enhancements designed to allow her to control her spacecraft by thought. The Jagernaut corps, though small in number, are an essential component in the armoury of the Skolian Empire, an interstellar empire in a constant state of war with the much larger and ruthless Trader empire: the Jagernauts’ unique ability to communicate instantly across multiple-light-year distances, using a network created and maintained through psionics and quantum entanglement, is pretty much all that stands in the way of the Traders’ plans for Galactic domination. It’s an uneasy balance, one which has been maintained for generations, but, clearly, something’s going to give, sooner or later. After tangling with a Trader team on Delos, Soz and her team make an unwelcome discovery on Delos, leading them to suspect that “sooner” might well be on the cards. Specifically, they learn that Ur Qox, the arrogant and bloodthirsty Aristo emperor who heads the Traders’ ruling Highton caste, has a secret heir: the charismatic Jaibriol, who holds a secret of his own, one as likely to destroy him as it is to lead to the Skolian Empire’s downfall. Sauscony, no stranger to unpredictable and rapidly-developing situations, suddenly finds herself playing for very high stakes indeed.

The speculative component of Primary Inversion is substantial, and quite heady. Faster-than-light travel, telepathy, instantaneous communication, and quantum creation of matter/antimatter from the vacuum of interstellar space: as a combination, it threatens to become top-heavy, particularly viewed alongside a plot which merges elements of hard SF, mil-SF/space opera, dynastic fantasy, superhero/supervillain wish-fulfilment fiction, and romance. In places, I felt like some of the scaffolding was showing through (early on, there’s at least one out-and-out example of infodump-disguised-as-dialogue), and there were places, also, where I felt the interpersonal dynamics didn’t entirely ring true. But it should be remembered that this is Asaro’s first novel, and while there were some things which grated for me, there were also several strengths. The story makes good use of situational humour; the more extravagant science aspects are justified with plausible (and generally acceptably brief) explanatory paragraphs; there’s an astonishingly-choreographed near-lightspeed space battle; and there’s some genuinely moving emotional shading to several of the character interactions. (Against this, there are times when the book seems quite chimeric, with Soz on occasion displaying the kind of carelessness that sees people in horror movies walk along pitch-dark floorboard-creaking passageways while creepy music plays.) But if you can forgive the story some patchiness (and let’s face it, hard SF and romance is a difficult trick to pull off), there’s a lot to recommend Primary Inversion – and there’d be every reason to expect that Asaro’s later fiction manages to avoid most of the (minor) potholes suggested above. Plus, for all that a full character description of Soz (which I’m not offering here, because spoilers) would make her sound highly Mary-Sue-ish, she’s given sufficient depth to be genuinely engaging, and enough vulnerability and ambivalence to remain believable, despite her credentials. For that reason, I think I owe it to myself to check out some more of Asaro’s writing.

How would I assess Primary Inversion as hard SF, rather than simply as general SF? Hmm… I’m not completely comfortable with the psionic aspects of the story, which while necessary and integral to the plot didn’t always feel natural or consistent to me. In this respect, I sometimes found suspension of disbelief to be a struggle, and I suspect hard-SF purists (among whose number I do not count myself) would likely have greater problems with it. But Asaro always makes an effort to justify her extrapolations, and in that respect the story certainly plays fair by the rules of hard SF, in spirit at least. And her FTL gimmick is brilliantly imaginative – and followed through with a storyline which treats it as more than a gimmick, with some genuine speculation on the ramifications of such technology for travel, warfare, and civilisation. (I should note here, also, that Asaro has authored academic papers on such FTL possibilities.)

Overall? It’s a busy book, well-paced, keenly imagined… kaleiodoscopic at times. (Remember, it blends hard SF, romance, and themes from dynastic fantasy. ‘Kaleidoscopic’ pretty much goes with the territory.) If that sounds like it might be your cup of tea, then yes, it probably is.

This review originally appeared on Simon Petrie.

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Primary Inversion, Catherine Asaro

Primary Inversion, Catherine Asaro (1995)
Review by Sandy M.

Jagernaut fighter pilot Sauscony (Soz) Valdoria is in command of a squadron of four Jagernaut pilots: neurologically enhanced empaths who have been bio-engineered as weapons. Soz is also an Imperial Heir of the Skolian Empire and may someday become its military commander. Skolian Jagernauts are pitted against the legions of the Trader empire, in particular its Aristo ruling class, a race that derives pleasure from the amplified pain and anguish of empaths, especially Jagernauts.

Primary Inversion is divided into three sections. In the first section, Soz and her squadron are taking shore leave on a planet that has remained neutral in the hostilities between the warring empires. It is there that Soz meets an Aristo named Jaibriol, who it turns out is heir to the Trader empire. Jaibriol is strangely interesting to Soz, despite her prior torture at the hands of an Aristo. Later, Soz and her Jagernaut squadron launch a desperate mission to save a planet from annihilation by the Trader empire. In the second section, Soz is sent for rest and recuperation on a planet, emotionally drained and suffering from post traumatic stress syndrome. Her condition continues to deteriorate. In the third section, Soz is recalled by her brother the Imperator, to join him on the Headquarters planet.

Primary Inversion was Catherine Asaro’s first novel. As such, it is an impressive debut with few significant stumbles and strong signs of promise. The pace moves things along at a brisk clip, and the key SF elements – FTL inversion drives and Jagernaut enhancements – are worked in as meaningful plot elements by the end of the story. The main character Sauscony (Soz) is convincingly described and engaging, and secondary characters are reasonably well drawn too. The political backdrop of warring empires provides depth and a sense of history.

Soz herself was my favorite character in this book, especially in the second and third sections, when she is struggling with post traumatic stress syndrome and then adventuring. In the first section, the narrative strains under a very heavy load of gadgetry exposition (FTL, Jagernauts, the ethnic roots of the empires), and Soz’s relationship with her fiancé is dropped in like a brick.

The three-section structure of the book worked unexpectedly well for me. Partly, because I was only semi-whelmed by the first section: I was happy to move on to a more character-centered narrative with less exposition.

In general, Primary Inversion is good, and it’s a promising sign that later novels by Asaro will be very good. It has many strong points that outweigh its weaknesses.

There are, however, disappointments: In starting off during R&R, we meet Soz’s squad, but some lumps of exposition are wince-worthy. I just took a deep breath and plowed through. I’ve hit more awkward sections elsewhere – for example I skipped chunks of Hammered. Soz’s agreement to marry Rex, a member of her squadron, was too unsubstantiated for my taste. It reminded me strongly of Heris’ romance with Petris, in Elizabeth Moon’s Hunting Party and Sporting Chance – i.e., military comrades with history predating the books, and we’re told that they now love each other. Rex might as well have been wearing “red shirt” for the defense of that planet threatened by the Aristos. Not only has he just gotten engaged, but he’s also a ‘short-timer’! No wonder he gets so badly injured, it’s practically a law of physics and clichés. Given that Soz is newly engaged, I was a little skeptical about the buzz of attraction she feels for Jaibriol in section one. I suppose she has enough stress and guilt from combat, but wouldn’t she be feeling a little guilty? Nor am I sure Soz (or her parents) really seem plausible as members of an imperial family. If they’re so hostile with the Aristos, would they really be this anonymous?

But these were balanced out by parts of Primary Inversion I thought successful: the civilians’ responses to the Jagernaut combat uniforms – black leather – could have felt like a cliché but I think it worked well throughout the book. The rum binge – Soz scratching her head with the Jumbler was well done. The point of view was maintained with Soz, but you could see that the bystanders were very nervous. I loved the description of Kurj’s gold-metallic hair, skin, and inner eyelids. Soz’s father and mother appear late in the story, but their warmth and affection are very convincing.

This review originally appeared on Bibliophage’s Buffet.