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Paradox
John Meaney
Pyr, 494 pages

Paradox
John Meaney
John Meaney has a degree in physics and computer science, is a black belt in Shotokan karate and works in IT. He has been reading SF since the age of eight, and his short fiction has appeared in Interzone and in a number of anthologies. His debut novel, To Hold Infinity, was shortlisted for the BSFA Award and subsequently selected as one of the Daily Telegraph's "Books of the Year."

John Meaney Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Interview: A Conversation With John Meaney
SF Site Review: Paradox

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Victoria Strauss

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In Paradox, the opener for John Meaney's Nulapeiron Sequence, the author posits a far-future society quite literally stratified by class. The populace lives underground, in vast cavern complexes whose layers reflect (and effect) social position: the nobles in the Primum Stratum, the underclasses in the bottom strata, with many shades and nuances in between. This rigidly classist culture is dominated by the Oracles, men and women who are able to cast their consciousness up and down the time stream and thus unerringly predict the future. With everything known, chance and free will have become archaic concepts, replaced by Fate and Destiny -- a literal rather than a religious certainty of predestination, but just as limiting. Despite its stagnant and archaic social structure, Nulapeiron's is an extremely advanced society, with technology that borders on the magical -- levcars, smart weapons, buildings constructed of intelligent materials that can reconform to command.

Tom Corcorigan, born into one of the lower strata, never expects to leave it. As Fate decrees, however, three cathartic events abruptly shift the direction of his life. A mysterious woman who gifts him with a strange datacrystal (only later does he realize that the woman is a Pilot, one of an almost legendary group of beings who navigate the fractal expanses of mu-space). His mother attracts an Oracle's lust, and is whisked away to a palace high in Nulapeiron's skies. His father, broken by the loss, falls sick and dies. Tom, now homeless, is forced several strata down, where he finds refuge in an orphanage that's also an unconventional school. Falling in with bad company, he's arrested for a theft he didn't commit; the penalty should be death, but Tom employs his quick intelligence to convince the noble Lady who rules his demesne to spare his life. She's so impressed that she decides to take him into her household as a servitor. Even so, punishment, like Destiny, must be served: for his crime, Tom must lose an arm.

Rigid as Nulapeiron's culture is, it rewards merit. Tom's prodigious intellect is recognized, and over the years he's given education and training that transform him into an accomplished scholar. As study molds his mind, his own steely will molds his body: despite his disability, he becomes a formidable athlete and fighter. The mysterious datacrystal is his constant companion; its modules, which he downloads one by one, tell the tale of a Terran woman, Karyn, and her training to become a Pilot. Ultimately, in reward for stellar intellectual achievement, Tom is raised to noble rank -- something almost unprecedented in Nulapeiron society. At last, he's in a position to undertake the act toward which all his efforts have been aimed: to ascend to the skybound realm of the Oracle who stole his mother, and avenge his shattered family. But how to surprise a being who knows the future? And once vengeance is achieved, what's left to live for?

In the tradition of the epic planetary sagas of earlier eras of SF (Frank Herbert's Dune, Brian Aldiss's Helliconia novels), Paradox is as much about Nulapeiron itself as it is about the characters and events for which Nulapeiron is the setting. Tom's long odyssey through the planet's many strata enables the reader to discover the world even as he does, in all its rich detail: from the grimy depths of the lower levels, with their meager living alcoves and crowded markets, to the airy expanses of the Primum Stratum, with its crystal and platinum palaces and its overbred nobility, to the Oracle's fabulous floating home in Nulapeiron's yellow skies. If these alien landscapes sometimes seem to lack logistical underpinning (we never find out, for instance, how food for such a large populace is produced in this underground world), they make up for it in atmosphere and strangeness, and the ingeniousness of all the advanced technology.

Also fascinating is the abstruse speculation with which the book is crammed. Struggling to unlock the mystery of the datacrystal, Tom gains paradigm-shifting understandings about the shape of the universe and the nature of time, and learns of the origin of consciousness (maybe) in the bizarre realm of mu-space -- something that, later on, turns out to have surprisingly practical applications. Meaney makes few concessions to the reader, with minimal explication of various fundamental concepts and jargon-heavy passages that sometimes approach incomprehensibility; at times it's as if he's writing mainly for physicists (it's also very difficult for a layman like myself to tell what's real science and what's the author's own invention). Still, this scientific/mathematical/philosophical inquiry is original, challenging stuff.

I wish I could say the same about other aspects of the book. Exotic setting and esoteric speculation notwithstanding, the plot is a fairly standard variation on a familiar theme -- an outsider's vengeance-fueled rise through the ranks of society, his fall, and his subsequent redemption. Despite much incident and many action sequences, Tom's story offers few real surprises, proceeding from point to point in flatly linear fashion and winding up pretty much where you expect. This wants to be a character-driven novel -- many of the crucial events turn on personal motivations and relationships. But since most of the characters are little more than sketches, their loves and hates and loyalties and betrayals don't carry a lot of emotional weight, and as a result a lot of the plot twists feel arbitrary. Only Tom is developed in any real detail, and even he never quite comes to life; we see where he goes and what he does and witness him in many private moments, but there's so little exploration of his inner landscape that when the book begins to deal with his passion to avenge the destruction of his family and the loss of his arm, it (the passion) comes as something of a surprise. I also grew tired of his unrelenting lack of flaw -- he's handsome, brilliant, disciplined, an amazing fighter, an astonishing athlete, ruthless enough to kill without mercy, compassionate enough to be undone by the death of a single child, strong enough to hit bottom and climb back up again and do it all even better the second time around.

The Nulapeiron Sequence is already complete in Meaney's native UK, where the third installment, Resolution, was just released. In the US, Pyr will be publishing the books at brisk intervals: the second, Context, is due this coming October.

Copyright © 2005 Victoria Strauss

Victoria Strauss is a novelist, and a lifelong reader of fantasy and science fiction. Her most recent fantasy novel, The Burning Land, is available from HarperCollins Eos. For more information, visit her website.


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