Virtual Girl, Amy Thomson

virtual-girl-coverVirtual Girl, Amy Thomson (1993)
Review by Simon Petrie

Arnold Brompton is a renegade programmer who develops an AI personality named Maggie, which he ports into an artificial humaniform body. He does this partly because he can, partly because his father has repeatedly sought to thwart him in this endeavour, and partly because he craves companionship. It’s a hazardous undertaking: artificial intelligence is a proscribed field of study, and the discovery of Maggie’s identity as an artificial construct would lead to her destruction and Arnold’s incarceration. It’s imperative, therefore, that Maggie learn how to flawlessly present herself as human, rather than machine. But is a sedentary, basement-dwelling computer nerd with a dose of street smarts really the best instructor of human behaviour?

Maggie is programmed for full obedience towards her creator Arnold, and to begin with she must, indeed, depend upon him. But Arnold makes a mistake, and Maggie is forced to choose between subservience to Arnold and her own survival. She chooses the more interesting option.

Thomson excels at characterisation and at giving voice to the thoughts, fears, and motivations of characters who can be very far from human. In Maggie, she has created an entity who, while technically lacking human emotion, does naturally engage our empathy, and Maggie’s deep-outsider perspective offers several intriguing points of analysis on aspects of human behaviour which might, in other contexts, be utterly unremarkable. Maggie’s important human reference points include Arnold, who undergoes a sinister but plausible transformation during the story (typified by his subsequent marginalisation of her identity as merely a “bag lady”); four-year-old Claire, whose innate acceptance of Maggie does much to affirm the robot’s sense of being and belonging; Azul, a hooker and aspiring dance-musician, who adopts Maggie and forms a significant bond with her; and Marie, Azul’s landlady, an Anna Madrigal type who, among other things, helps Maggie to understand certain aspects of human interaction which had, up until then, remained almost completely opaque.

I wouldn’t classify Virtual Girl as a high-octane read (by analogy, for example, with Madeline Ashby’s similarly-themed but distinctly more violent vN, which I believe may have been somewhat influenced by Thomson’s novel); though the story certainly shuttles from place to place (driven by Maggie’s need to keep on the move, so as to evade detection by the Bromptons), there’s plenty of opportunity for reflection and a sense of (mostly) peaceful existence as Maggie learns about humans, and about herself. There’s also a (mostly) plausible extrapolation of near-future US society (circa, I believe, the 2040s) – maglevs, solar panels, neural implants – though it’s almost unavoidable that the 1990s-vision computational detail is incorrect in parts. (The titbit I found hardest to swallow was the now-quaint notion that Maggie’s complete sensorium, a year’s worth of memories, and her astonishingly complex operating system would all fit on eight CDs, around 6GB total capacity by my estimation, as if CDs would even be used for this application in a quarter-century from today.) But provided you don’t insist on complete predictive accuracy (which is always a hazardous undertaking in any work of SF), the book manages admirably to ring true. It’s a very accomplished piece of character-driven hard SF, and it delivers on several levels.

This review originally appeared on Simon Petrie.


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.

Heaven Chronicles, Joan D Vinge

heaven_chroniclesHeaven Chronicles, Joan D Vinge (1991)
Review by Simon Petrie

Joan D Vinge’s asteroid-colony book Heaven Chronicles is novel-length, but it’s not a single novel: instead it combines the works ‘Legacy’ (which I judge to be on the awkward cusp, in length, between a novella and a short novel) and the short(ish) novel ‘The Outcasts of Heaven Belt’. To complicate matters slightly, ‘Legacy’ is itself a combination of two short novellas ‘Media Man’ and ‘Fool’s Gold’. Two of the three component stories (‘Media Man’ and ‘The Outcasts of Heaven Belt’) first appeared in Analog magazine, respectively in 1976 and 1978; ‘Fool’s Gold’ was first published in Galileo magazine in 1980. The Outcasts of Heaven Belt has also all been published separately as a paperback. Additionally, Vinge has apparently revised all of this material, in a book entitled Heaven Belt which, to the best of my knowledge, has not yet seen release.

The tales within Heaven Chronicles all concern the unfolding, and downward-spiralling, history of the colonised asteroid belt orbiting the star Heaven, in a system rich in planetoidal resources but lacking any habitable planets. The two stories comprising ‘Legacy’ explore the adventures of prospector-turned-media-reporter Chaim Dartagnan and pilot Mythili Fukinuki, who meet as participants in an ill-fated mission to rescue the wealthy occupant of a spacecraft marooned on the frozen, inhospitable Planet Two. ‘The Outcasts of Heaven Belt’ deals with the events that unfold following the arrival in Heaven system of Ranger, a well-resourced and technologically advanced starship piloted by Betha Torgussen who, after the ship comes under attack from an overzealous colony defence force, is one of only two survivors from an original complement of seven.

There’s a decidedly old-fashioned and pulpy feel to Heaven Chronicles. (I offer this as an attempt at classification rather than any implied criticism.) There’s a lot of argument, a lot of tension, some well-telegraphed action and a kind of rough simplicity to the characterisation, more so in the space-operatic ‘The Outcasts of Heaven Belt’ than in ‘Legacy’. The most obvious overarching characteristics of the stories are, however, an evidently thoroughgoing respect for the laws of physics and an interest in the exploration of gender politics. It’s probably relevant also to note the book’s thoroughgoing use of “metric time” – ie, seconds, kiloseconds, megaseconds, gigaseconds – rather than the “imperial time” (hours, days, years, etc) to which readers are presumably accustomed. The use of unconventional time units is initially disruptive – the conversion to familiar units has to be thought through, the first few times – but does, I think, encourage a degree of immersion in the story that might otherwise be absent.

I found ‘Legacy’ to be the more rewarding of the assembled components: while neither Dartagnan nor Fukinuki is a particularly compelling viewpoint character, the interaction between them is fascinating, and I appreciated the story’s ultimate (rather elliptical) denouement. ‘The Outcasts of Heaven Belt’ suffered slightly by comparison: the story seemed overlong and meandering in places. Overall, while I found the book enjoyable, I suspect its “bitsy-ness” might irk some readers, since, despite the presence of common characters, the three stories don’t really mesh together to form a complete whole. On the other hand, it would probably hold a strong appeal to devotees of 1950s and 1960s space-based SF.

This review originally appeared on Simon Petrie.

Cyteen, CJ Cherryh

cyteenCyteen, CJ Cherryh (1988)
Review by Simon Petrie

C J Cherryh (the terminal ‘h’ is in fact pseudonymous, and also silent) is an American SF / fantasy writer with over sixty novels to her credit. Her awards include the John W Campbell Award, three Hugos, and a Locus (the subject of this review, Cyteen, accounts for the Locus and one of the Hugos); she also has an asteroid, 77185 Cherryh, named in her honour.

Ariane Emory is the Councillor for the Bureau of Science, one of the nine supreme political figures in the multiple-world Union; Ariane (‘Ari’) is also inextricably connected with Reseune, the dominant genetic-industrial research centre on the planet of Cyteen that is the centre of Union government. At the start of Cyteen, Ari – a sharp-as-nails centenarian, herself gifted in genetic research, and a persistently shrewd operator – has made an enemy in Jordan Warrick, a rival researcher at Reseune who has become concerned that Emory has been seeking to appropriate his research efforts for her own ends, a situation which is not helped when Ari initiates an ill-judged and psychologically-damaging dalliance with Warrick’s seventeen-year-old ‘son’ Justin (who is in fact Warrick senior’s personal replicant, or clone). Jordan has been agitating to be reassigned elsewhere, beyond the influence of Ariane Emory; as a result of the events precipitated by the revelation of Ari’s interference with Justin, Jordan gets his wish, but at terrible cost to himself and to a good many other people within Reseune. The majority of the book occupies itself with Ari and Justin striving to come to terms with who they are, and to understand the scope and the limitations of their abilities… as well as to figure out just where they stand in relation to one another.

(I am well aware that the capsule description of the book’s outline above leaves out a hell of a lot that is important, and that’s deliberate. I have a policy of treating as ‘fair game’ for disclosure in a review any plot point which is revealed less than a third of the way through the book; I’m breaking that rule with this review, because I think there are events within the book, even within the first third, that will have more impact if they’re not given away here.)

Cyteen is a massive book: the edition I read weighs in at 680 pages, and it’s fairly densely-spaced text. It would not surprise me to learn it’s somewhere in the vicinity of 300,000 words. I’m not a devotee of large novels, and I have to say I approached Cyteen with no little trepidation on this score. I finished the first novella-length chapter still without a clear idea of what I was dealing with: there is, I think it’s safe to say, a lot going on, and Cherryh, like Ari, is fully capable of throwing half a dozen seemingly-disparate things at you at once. By the end of the second chapter, though, I was hooked.

One of my deficiencies, I think (at least I have certain friends who tell me it is a deficiency) is that I seek to explain through comparison, which means that my natural inclination when looking to give an insight into the kind of book that is Cyteen is to say that it reads somewhat like a cross between Asimov’s Foundation series and Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. By which I mean that it combines something of the kind of interstellar-empire-politics that fuels Asimov’s work with the keenly attuned social awareness and personal depth that typifies Le Guin’s writing; and yet, though this comparison might be of some use (it does, I think, have some validity), it might also mislead. A less direct but more pertinent comparison, by virtue of the book’s monolithic claustrophobia (it’s set, almost exclusively, within the one large building), its attention to detail, its focus on generational and dynastic struggle, intrigue, and Machiavellian manoeuvering, might be made with Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast books: although where Peake’s concern is to capture, in words, the images needed for the reader to envision the story in as much detail as possible, Cherryh’s focus is on the thought processes, and she is remarkably good at laying bare the motivations that lead people into (and out of) various predicaments. The book hits high marks as a keenly-focused psychological novel.

It also works as first-rate science fiction, with an obvious focus on genetic research, cloning, and the sticking points of the nature versus nurture argument. (‘Soft’ science does not preclude ‘hard’ science fiction, and I would cite Cyteen as a case in point in this regard.) I found the book’s scientific content to be very well-drawn and overall highly credible; and its sense of both (a) the sometimes-glacial pace of scientific research (with innumerable dead ends and blind alleys, and progress that might, on occasion, be measured in decades) and (b) the overwhelming bitterness of academic bureaucracy definitely heighten its plausibility. (And I believe that I can see, in Cherryh’s extrapolated political system, having power over billions of people across scores of worlds, what is effectively a hyperelephantiased form of a typically dysfunctional University council).

There are probably some key examples of ‘future tech’ that I should mention, since they are central to the book’s evolution. The book makes the distinction between ‘born men’ (citizens, those conceived and born in the usual way, with chance playing a considerable part in their genotype) and ‘azis’ (with a precisely defined genotype, vat-grown, born into servitude and designed to perform particular functions within society, but able to attain citizenship under certain conditions). There is also a form of ‘automated learning’ involving ‘tape’, which is central to azi programming and which is also, on occasion, used on citizens. Described thus, these concepts probably sound dehumanising; but placed in the context of Cherryh’s imagined universe, with safeguards and oversight, they work. It is a society which is sympathetically visualised, and surprisingly immersive.

Ultimately, I suppose the focus of Cyteen is that of power versus vulnerability (and the opportunity for trust), and of nature versus nurture. There’s much made of the fact that Justin, Jordan’s clone, has a different personality, because of differences in his upbringing. And it’s fair to say, also, that Ari is not the same person at the end of the book as she was at the beginning…

I could say more, but I won’t. Other than that I found Cyteen to be a highly rewarding, intelligent, and deeply moving piece of SF.

This review originally appeared on Simon Petrie.

Dawn, Octavia Butler

dawnDawn, Octavia Butler (1987)
Review by Simon Petrie

Octavia E Butler was an African-American SF writer who died in 2006, aged 58. Her fiction has won Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards, and she was the first SF writer to be awarded a MacArthur Foundation ‘Genius’ Grant for her writing. She wrote several well-regarded series of novels; Dawn is the first novel in what is variously called her ‘Xenogenesis’ or ‘Lilith’s Brood’ trilogy.

Dawn starts with the reawakening of Lilith Iyapo aboard an alien spacecraft in orbit beyond Earth’s Moon. Lilith is one of the few human survivors of a nuclear war which has devastated the Earth. Her captors / guardians / mentors are the Oankali, a three-gendered race of grotesquely tentacled humanoids. (It’s difficult, when reading the book, not to envisage the Oankali as looking like the Ood from Doctor Who.) Starved of human contact, and still grieving for a husband and son who were killed before the war which all-but-obliterated humanity, Lilith must conquer a deep-seated revulsion for Jdahya, the Oankali adult male who has been tasked with helping her acclimate to her circumstances. Once she has adjusted to Jdahya’s company (and his largely passive tutelage), she must learn to communicate with the less-patient, intermediate-gender Kahguyaht (one of Jdahya’s two spouses), then with the family’s adolescent child, Nikanj. With each of her teachers, Lilith strives (and fails) to argue for the necessity to accommodate the basic human needs for companionship, for freedom of movement, and even for information. The Oankali, it seems, are prepared to offer humanity’s remnants a form of salvation, a second chance at existence; but it is to be a second chance which is entirely on the Oankali’s terms. Humans will get to repopulate the Earth, if they agree to abide by the rules which the Oankali are laying down; but they will not get the Earth to themselves.

Dawn is an incredibly immersive view of a disorientingly alien culture: thinking through other books I’ve read in a somewhat similar vein, I think only Phillip Mann’s work (notably The Eye Of The Queen, a near-contemporary of Dawn, and this year’s The Disestablishment of Paradise) would come close in their ability to convey a detailed and convincing otherness. Stylistically, there are parallels with the writing of Ursula K Le Guin, most strongly The Left Hand of Darkness, with which there is a similarity not just in terms of tone but also of the exploration of alternative sexualities: where The Left Hand of Darkness has its each-way ‘kemmering’ of androgynous humanoids into briefly male and female counterparts, Dawn has its three-gendered aliens, with male, female and ‘ooloi’ genders, with the ooloi acting as a very hands-on intermediary between the more recognisable genders. Thematically, the work evokes comparison with Arthur C Clarke’s Childhood’s End, with its superior aliens seeking to enlighten and to reshape humanity. I’d have to say that I found Butler’s view of future human evolution (or the foreshortened sketch of same on offer in Dawn) to be distinctly more palatable, largely as a result of the credibility and emotional depth of Lilith’s portrayal, and the sophistication (superior, supremely foreign, fallible, and somewhat arrogant) of Butler’s saviour-colonialist aliens. Although other humans do eventually appear in Dawn — the book’s final quarter places Lilith in the role of instructor and leader for the group which will subsequently be transported down — the focus, throughout, is on Lilith’s attempts to make her own personal peace with an alien culture which, no matter how well-meaning, spells a form of doom for human civilisation as we would recognise it.

Does Dawn work as hard SF? I think it does; the science in question is predominantly biological, and is addressed through Butler’s efforts to construct a detailed and self-consistent description of the Oankali’s aptitude for genetic (and more broadly biological) manipulation. This exploration is a satisfying and (I think) necessary component of the tale Butler is telling: while the story’s force derives from Lilith’s doubts and persistence as she masters the various dilemmas with which she is faced, its weight accrues from the Oankali’s plausibility as disturbingly accomplished genetic tinkerers, whose motivation in helping to perpetuate a human presence on Earth is plainly not pure altruism.

Butler shies away from simple answers: ultimately, it’s not possible to say whether she’s on the side of humanity, of the aliens, or somewhere in between. (The same could be said, I think, for her exploration of gender politics and of colonialism.) She just observes, and invites us to make our own conclusions of the scenario which she has sketched out with such care in this book. It’s this ambivalence, this careful understatement, which makes Dawn such a compelling story.

This review originally appeared on Simon Petrie.