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Elizabeth Bear
Bantam Spectra, 432 pages

Elizabeth Bear
Elizabeth Bear shares a birthday with Frodo and Bilbo Baggins. She was born in Hartford, Connecticut, and grew up in central Connecticut. She currently lives in the Mojave Desert near Las Vegas, Nevada, but she's trying to escape. Elizabeth Bear is her real name, but not all of it.

Elizabeth Bear Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Carnival

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Paul Kincaid

There was a time, not so long ago, when British science fiction was in the doldrums. What lifted it out and established what has been called the "British renaissance" was a rediscovery through the works of such as Iain M. Banks and Colin Greenland of the excitement of traditional SF tropes and topics. Of late we have started to see that same reappraisal of core science fictional ideas in some of the younger American writers like John Scalzi and Elizabeth Bear. Carnival by Bear is a perfect example of such a return. Strip away the sexual politics overlaid on the story, which add complexity to the plot but not necessarily depth to the novel, and this is a book that could have come straight from the so-called golden age.

In broad terms we see Earth and its more local planets under a fascistic dictatorship, while a handful of more distant worlds have retained their more individualistic independence. We follow two diplomats from the dictatorship on a mission to one of these independent worlds ostensibly to return looted art treasures but really to sow the seeds for conquest. Except, of course, that our two diplomats are goodies really, secretly working for the independence movement. Naturally there's a complication: they discover an intelligent alien on the planet, and it is the alien that provides the means for eventual victory.

If you have not read that precise story in some old SF paperback before now, then you must have read something very like it, at least the trajectory of the story is familiar and you recognise a lot of the plot devices you encounter along the way.

Of course, this isn't exactly the story you read, because Bear has overlaid this old spine with the flesh of much more contemporary concerns. The diplomats, the suave Vincent Katherinessen and the tough Michelangelo Kusanagi-Jones, are homosexuals from a world whose regressive and repressive mores mean that this could get them killed, but for the fact that they are exceptionally well-skilled at their job and also well-practiced in deception. They are old lovers, but they have not seen each other for seventeen years, not since their previous mission in which one betrayed the other, a betrayal which lead to many deaths. And as the novel opens, neither knows that the other is secretly working against the Coalition; something that we the readers become aware of long before either of the characters do.

There are multiple layers of deception in this situation already, but that is barely the start of it. The world they are visiting, New Amazonia, is a world ruled by women (a set-up that is itself reminiscent of the feminist science fiction of twenty or perhaps thirty years ago). Here men, untrusted because of their aggressive instincts, are destined for the gladiatorial arena, while "gentle" men are accorded a sort of trustee status. The women, meanwhile, have acquired a curious machismo of their own, invariably carrying pistols strapped to their waists and engaged in a culture in which duelling is central. It is also a world with its own deceptions. Vincent and Michelangelo are working with Lesa Pretoria, the tough and competent woman who is one of the main players in a movement to undermine the government of New Amazonia while at the same time linking up with the anti-Coalition forces secretly represented by the diplomats. But Lesa has secret plans of her own involving getting her clever son away from the dangers and limited opportunities of New Amazonia. At the same time, Lesa's lover and her daughter are both involved in a violent revolutionary movement on New Amazonia, while the New Amazonian government is covertly working to undermine the overt diplomatic mission in order to foment war. With me so far?

It is a complex plot, perhaps over-complex. There are too many layers of betrayal and deception for a book of this length, and the various motivations of the different parties are not always as clear or as convincing as they should be. And when, two thirds or more of the way through the novel, Bear suddenly has Michelangelo and Lesa kidnapped by a revolutionary group, it feels too much as if she is simply adding a spot of violent action to freshen up a plot that had started to slow down, and not enough as if this is a logical outgrowth of the plot and counterplot that has so far driven the novel. Add in first contact with a transcendent alien, but one that is not so transcendent it doesn't take a keen interest in the doings of humans, and you have a book that seems somewhat overloaded with plot.

Nevertheless, Bear keeps the whole thing moving at a brisk and satisfying pace. You are swept up in the drama enough to miss most of the logical gaps in the plot. Even so, the happy ending feels more than a little contrived, and I am far from convinced that any of the plots against the Coalition that run through the novel would have had even a fleeting chance of success without the deus ex machina of the alien. That little gripe aside, this is exactly the sort of vivid, pacy novel that used to make science fiction such an exciting genre to read. It is very good to see that this sort of story can still be told.

Copyright © 2007 by Paul Kincaid

Paul Kincaid is the recipient of the SFRA's Thomas D. Clareson Award for Distinguished Service for 2006. He is the co-editor of The Arthur C. Clarke Award: A Critical Anthology.

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