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Books
by Chris Moriarty

The Highest Frontier, by Joan Slonczewski, Tor Books, 2011, $26.99.

Children of the Sky, by Vernor Vinge, Tor Books, 2011. Hardcover, $25.99.

The Dream of Perpetual Motion, by Dexter Palmer, Picador, 2010, $16.

After the Apocalypse, by Maureen F. McHugh, Small Beer Press, 2011, $16.

Let's Play White, by Chesya Burke, Apex, 2011, $15.95.

 
JOAN Slonczewski's The Highest Frontier and Vernor Vinge's The Children of the Sky are both long-awaited volumes from major hard sf writers who work at a glacially slow pace by the standards of commercial publishing. Vernor Vinge needs no introduction among knowledgeable science fiction readers, and Joan Slonczewski is not only one of the great hard sf writers of all time but also one of the increasingly rare sf writers who are active researchers in the base sciences. Running a research lab or an astronomical observatory is not a sine qua non of writing good hard sf; some of the greatest hard sf writers are either non-scientists or specialists in more abstract disciplines like mathematics or theoretical computer science. But active research scientists bring tremendous insights to the genre, and their diminishing presence in science fiction over the last few decades—largely due to ever more insane time demands of lab management and grant writing in modern academia—has undoubtedly impoverished our genre. So a new book from Slonczewski is good news for anyone who cares about the continuing credibility of hard sf as a literature of ideas that springs from a substantive dialogue with serious scientific research instead of merely using science as literary window dressing.

Vernor Vinge, a mathematician who has made his academic reputation in computer science and is best known for his theory of the Singularity, brings a quite different perspective—and there are great insights to be gleaned from reading Vinge and Slonczewski in tandem. To see the same core ideas—first contact, for example, or the challenges of space colonization—examined from the radically different perspectives of a microbiologist and a computer scientist can reveal habitual preconceptions just as effectively as those trick pictures where a vase turns into a face and then back again every time you blink.

Vinge and Slonczewski also share another trait: the dazzling fecundity of their imaginations. Both writers produce big science ideas at such a mind-boggling rate that they can't even be bothered to feed and water them until they grow into novels. Instead they tumble around in the middle of books ostensibly about other things, providing a constant stream of mind-expanding one-liners for alert readers.

One of the nice things about Vinge's retirement from active teaching has been that he now seems to have time to develop a larger number of these brilliant ideas. Slonczewski, on the other hand, is still at the height of a research career that would be impressive even without her fiction production. So we're not likely to see a slew of Slonczewski "retirement" novels until 2030 or so. But the good news is that The Highest Frontier seems to be the start of a larger series that might come out quicker than standalone novels.

 

The Highest Frontier introduces Jenny Ramos Kennedy, a scion of the famous political dynasty, just as she's leaving Earth to attend college in a posh orbital habitat. As we follow Jenny into orbit, Slonczewski gives us an insider's view of scientific research and social shenanigans in the ivory tower that is by turns hair-raising and hilarious.

Slonczewski posits a glittering high-tech future in which space elevators climb cords of anthrax bacteria; taxpayers have been replaced by "taxplayers" who gamble their taxes at orbital casinos; IT services are provided by children because no one over the age of ten understands the newest tech; and orbital colonists wear power bands that harvest their kinetic energy for deposit in over-leveraged power banks and live in nanotech houses that melt down if you miss a payment.

But there are darker sides to life in Slonczewski's future America: global warming has made floods, pythons, kudzu, and methane quakes a part of daily life; the U.S. and China are at war over Antarctica, the new global breadbasket; and Evangelical Christians have given up on saving Earth and embarked on a high-tech Rapture in which the Righteous will all migrate to orbital habitats. And as if all that weren't enough, the War on Terror has been replaced by the War on Ultra: an invasive alien species that thrives in a biosphere increasingly hostile to Earthly life.

The Highest Frontier is a deeply political book, and one written from the standpoint of an active academic in the hard sciences. Sometimes—as in Slonczewski's skewering of the foibles of academia—the result is comic. But Slonczewski also has a sharp eye for more grievous failures of human organizations and the human spirit: university administrators' self-serving excuses about admitting unqualified legacy kids because their parents' future donations might fund new dorms and merit scholarships; the quiet cover-ups of student rapes (particularly chilling in light of recent events at Penn State); the constant accommodations that professors in science departments are required to make to anti-science and pseudo-science in order to avoid controversy; and the long-term price of those accommodations in a nation where public policy and sound science drift farther apart with every election cycle.

At its core, The Highest Frontier is an impassioned plea for medically and ecologically sound, science-based public policy. As part of this plea Slonczewski tries to articulate a broad vision of how religion and science might embrace rather than battle with each other in American politics. In many respects she succeeds admirably at tackling a subject many writers and public policy wonks have stumbled over. And yet I still came away from my reading with very mixed feelings about this aspect of the book. It wasn't that I faulted Slonczewski's (mostly impeccable) logic or disagreed with her handling of political and religious themes. And it certainly wasn't that the book is anything less than gripping—in fact I stayed up late two nights in a row to finish it. Rather, it's that as I was reading the book I kept thinking…Is America really this crazy?

And then I would open up the morning paper or turn on the TV and remember that, yes, sadly, we really are that crazy. And we really do need books like this one. The fact that America needs Joan Slonczewski to administer an anti-crazy-pill makes me (as my four-year-old has been known to say in similar circumstances) Sad and Mad. But on the other hand, if America needs to take its meds, then The Highest Frontier is seriously fun—and seriously smart—sugarcoating.

 

One of the great pleasures I've had over the last few months has been rereading Vernor Vinge's Zones of Thought books in anticipation of the arrival of the long-anticipated next installment. The Children of the Sky is the third full-length novel in the Zones of Thought series, and I should make it clear right now that anyone who hasn't read the first two books in the series should definitely read them before embarking on this extremely close sequel to A Fire upon the Deep. As for what order you should read them in…well, there's legitimate room for debate there.

Personally, I'd start with A Deepness in the Sky, which I believe to be the best hard sf novel ever written. It's an extremely suspenseful book, and all but impossible to summarize without committing unforgivable plot spoilers. But I don't think I'm risking too much by saying that it's one of the great first contact novels of all time, and also not to be missed if you've got a thing for creepy mind control dystopias. That said, A Deepness in the Sky is only a loose prequel to the more closely linked Tines World books. So while it enriches the experience of reading them, it's absolutely not necessary.

Okay, enough setup! Let's talk about the new book!

All of the formidable gifts that Vinge brought to A Fire Upon the Deep and A Deepness in the Sky are conspicuously present in The Children of the Sky: the astonishing flights of imagination and scientific speculation; the ability to weave a complex, braided story composed of multiple, fully developed character arcs; the slow, purposeful accretion of scientific details that lets Vinge communicate complex scientific ideas without ever slowing down for indigestible chunks of exposition; the surreal ability to convey a deep understanding of complex events through unreliable or clueless narrators who often don't grasp the larger implications of their own stories. But The Children of the Sky also brings new and important speculative ideas to the series, though I was deep into my reading of the book before I began to see them, and thus to grasp that this book is more than just the straightforward "middle book of a trilogy" it at first seems to be.

The central metaphysical obsession of A Fire upon the Deep was the nature of the soul, and the ways in which our ideas of identity, mortality, and immortality are forged in the sometimes conflicting or delusional stories we tell ourselves about who we are—culturally, biologically, individually. Vinge's primary vehicle for this exploration was the unforgettable Flenser, the sinister yet undeniably brilliant Tines despot who forges souls that he calls masterpieces and others call monsters. Then, with A Deepness in the Sky, Vinge turned his metaphysical lens on a slightly different but equally profound target: the disturbing degree to which human culture and technological progress is founded on societies abrogating individual freedoms… often in ways that make clearcut dichotomies like democracy versus tyranny and individual versus collective seem like dangerously inadequate tools of moral analysis.

In The Children of the Sky, Vinge returns to Tines World and its pack minds. But Vinge's ideas have shifted and expanded in subtly important ways since he last wrote about Tines World. It took me a while to catch onto the shift, and I have to admit that at first I resented it. I wanted more Flenser, more monsters, more soul-slicing dungeons and diabolical machinations. But instead Vinge kept pushing his story toward the Tropics and its massive, continent-spanning cities where—at least according to the Northerners' stereotypes—rational thought and individuality were completely submerged in the "decadent" chaos of the Choir.

Silly me. Shouldn't I know by now that when Vernor Vinge starts having his characters mouth stereotypes he's already halfway to subverting them?

Read facilely, The Children of the Sky would be easy to dismiss as a middle novel (albeit a thrillingly action-packed one) in which the focus is on character development and story mechanics but no significant new speculative ideas are really being put on the table. But that read of the book would be dead wrong. Rather, this novel is a complex shell game, in which Vinge directs your attention back and forth between multiple plotlines, all while waiting to spring the big science ideas on you until he's had time to work through some of the more uncanny implications of contemporary theoretical computer science. The science concepts are so cleverly embedded in the riproaring adventure story that you barely notice them rushing by. But still…I can't help thinking that CompSci 101 with Vernor Vinge would be one of those courses that cracks open your head and rewires your worldview.

The Children of the Sky ends with a tantalizing glimpse of what (I ardently hope) lies in store for patient readers in book three of the trilogy. We see Johanna, standing on the edge of the southern hinterlands, a far future Coronado poised to jump off into an unexplored continent defined less by geography than by networks. She is beginning to delve into the true heart of the Choir: a continent-spanning, anarcho-libertarian collective consciousness that promises to be as scientifically complex and metaphysically resonant as anything Vinge has written about to date. Meanwhile, as he chronicles the power dynamics of the increasingly fractured human settlement, Vinge has laid the groundwork for comparing the obvious collective consciousness of the Choir to the human patterns of decision-making and identity-construction that are so familiar to us that we rarely think to examine their underlying structure. In short, Vinge has returned to his Zones of Thought universe armed with the insights of the explosion of theoretical computer science and network theory in the last two decades. And he asks, in ways that are both hopeful and destabilizing, whether we really understand our own minds quite as well as we like to think we do.

I am greatly looking forward to seeing how this grandest of Vinge's grand ideas plays out in the next Tines World book—and if the Singularity arrives first, I'll be one frustrated hominid!

 

I've never been able to resist a good Death of Magic story, and Dexter Palmer has written a truly remarkable one. The Dream of Perpetual Motion is a loose steampunk-tinged retelling of The Tempest. But unlike less thoughtful steampunkistas, Palmer goes beyond the goggles-and-airships aesthetic and delves into the darker subtext of power and violence that lies beneath the steampunk mystique.

The Dream of Perpetual Motion is a story at war with itself. It allows multiple readings, some of which seem to contradict or even negate each other, and all of which raise disturbing questions about whether love—or even honest communication—is possible between men and women, rich and poor, adults and children, or in any relationship where power differentials play a role. My main sensation while reading the book was unease. Are the rare moments of seeming connection and communication between Palmer's isolated characters real or delusional? What is the true nature of the terrible crime at the heart of the story? And what are we to make of the narrator's ambiguous and in some ways deeply problematic final epiphany?

I honestly can't offer a definitive answer to any of those questions. What I can say, however, is that I couldn't put this book down. Through a slow accumulation of resonant moments, Palmer builds a penumbra of alternative meanings around a central story that remains troublingly difficult to pin down even after the final page is turned. The result is an enigmatic and at times frustrating book, rife with internal contradictions, whose characters battle over the meaning of their lives in ways that range from laugh-out-loud funny to deeply disturbing. Like the two baffling crimes/works of art at the story's center, the novel is a cacophony of interwoven tales that synchronize with or interfere with each other as you move through the narrative, giving way every now and then to sharp, bright, painfully beautiful moments of clarity.

The Dream of Perpetual Motion is a strangely compelling and compulsively readable novel in the best tradition of literary speculative fiction writers like Geoff Ryman and M. John Harrison. And though it is a deeply serious novel, it also contains moments of comedy—some high, some low, but all hilarious—including but not limited to the funniest mock Death Ray Ultimatum Letter ever (on page 250, if you must know). If you're in search of a cure for the common steampunk, look no further.

 

I don't usually review short story collections, but this month I have two exceptionally good ones to recommend.

Maureen McHugh is one of the great sf writers of our generation, and her latest book, After the Apocalypse, is one of the best short story collections I've read in the last decade. Standout stories include "The Naturalist," in which zombies turn out to be the least scary part of the coming apocalypse; "Special Economics," which follows the travails of a pair of Chinese factory girls; "Useless Things," set in an eerily familiar post-financial meltdown New Mexico; and "The Effect of Centrifugal Forces," whose narrator's mother has Avian Prion Disease (spread through Chicken McNuggets). Readers who remember the masterful writing and character development in China Mountain Zhang will find a great deal to admire here. If you're already a Maureen McHugh fan, you need to buy After the Apocalypse. And if you're not yet a Maureen McHugh fan? Well, you should be.

Chesea Burke's Let's Play White is an intelligent and fiercely humorous book. Burke's stories describe African-American women's experiences with honesty and humor, and with a profound awareness of the complexity of race and gender roles that makes her a worthy heir to writers like James Baldwin and James Tiptree, Jr. And even if you're not a short story reader, you shouldn't miss the superb novella, "The Teachings and Redemption of Ms. Fannie Lou Mason," that makes up about the last third of the book. It takes up many of Burke's characteristic themes—the bonds between mothers, daughters, and sisters, the insidious legacy of violence—and melds them into a darkly powerful tale that evokes Rosewood and all the other lost Southern towns where the ghosts whisper on the wind long after the graves have grown over and the old houses have fallen to ruin.

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