Mississippi Blues, Kathleen Ann Goonan

mississippi_bluesMississippi Blues, Kathleen Ann Goonan (1997)
Review by Matthew Montgomery

In 1994’s Queen City Jazz, Kathleen Ann Goonan attempts to meld the improvisational structure of jazz with the science fiction novel. More ambitious than simply offering nanotechnology as a gee-whiz cool thing (or novum as per Darko Suvin), Goonan’s debut puts stress on the generic limitations of the sci-fi field, pushing the novel into different realms of narrative possibility. Her 1997 sequel, Mississippi Blues, takes the world the first novel laboured at and presses further the melding of form and content, taking Mississippi Blues into new territories, both literal and figurative.

Mississippi Blues picks up almost directly where Queen City Jazz leaves off: Verity gives up control of Cincinnati and forces the city to relinquish nan-facilitated control of the citizens. Without the nan forcing them to act out the roles assigned by the corrupted intelligence at the heart of the city, the people are without purpose. Verity instills in them a nanotech-induced mission called The Norleans Plague, which coerces people into travelling down the Ohio River to New Orleans, essentially acting out the journey Huck Finn takes on. Commanding a nan-built riverboat, Verity takes them on a hallucinogenic voyage through a post-collapse America.

Instead of jazz as a structuring metaphor, Goonan looks to the blues to inform the thematics of the sequel. The novel does not shy away from the racial politics of the blues; instead, she reminds the reader that the blues has a complex political ancestry, including the songs of the slaves. Goonan uses the ignorance of her characters as an avenue for expounding on the dark sides of American history, all while skilfully weaving an intricate thematic web. Mississippi Blues is intensely focused on the conceptual potential of freedom and slavery. Verity has freed the people from a nan-induced slavery by shackling them to another nan-induced feverdream. Simultaneously, the novel asks whether this future society can ever be free of American history, can ever rebuild without the looming shadow of slavery and racism.

Goonan blends these strings of thematic investigation with sensitive characterizations of Verity and the other people on the riverboat. The structure of the novel, with its lackadaisical meandering down the river, allows Goonan the space to let her characters breathe and develop. Frequently, the narrative slows to let some backstory fill in, usually of the heartbreaking variety, as no character emerges unscathed by the trauma of society’s collapse. Goonan’s sensitivity towards the feelings and motivations of her lead characters remains of one her greatest strengths in this novel and the preceding one.

However, a problem from Queen City Jazz rears its head in Mississippi Blues. In order to prolong the plotting, Goonan relies on avoiding the reveal of information. Verity, raised in isolation, is almost completely unaware of how society has collapsed and how nanotechnology went from saviour to oppressor. She is constantly paired with characters who do know, but won’t provide answers, despite direct questions from Verity. It’s similar to the frustration presented by Dumbledore: people just won’t provide straight answers, leading to my frustration and frequent exasperation. It’s a delaying tactic and a stronger narrative might have provided an organic reason for withholding information beyond a character point blank refusing to divulge.

Mississippi Blues is a dense read, both in its execution and its worldbuilding. Even after reading two volumes in this quartet, I’m still somewhat unsure of the backstory’s chronology. Likewise, I’m fuzzy on many supporting characters’ motivations and position in the novel. An effect of an episodic structure, too many people are introduced and quickly dropped, their impact dulled by the frequency with which this happens. Still, Mississippi Blues is an engaging and thoughtful read, glittering with narrative and thematic ambition, anchored by some strong prose and confident characterization.

For more information, see A Lay of the Land.

Queen City Jazz, Kathleen Ann Goonan

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.