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Jus Neuce
Aio Publishing, 373 pages

Jus Neuce
Jus Neuce is a business writer in Charleston, South Carolina, with a longtime interest in political science fiction. A member of a family with political leanings (her name is a pseudonym), and with a former career grounded in psychology, Neuce seeks to explore facets of human nature and power structures in her fiction. Nocturne is her first novel.

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A review by Victoria Strauss

Nocturne is a tidally locked, synchronously rotating planet in close tow to its companion sun. It was colonized in two waves -- an initial expedition of scientists and a subsequent one of pioneers (both the product of generation ships from Earth), who settled on Nocturne's terminator, the narrow rim between perpetual sunlight and freezing darkness. Largely forgotten by Earth, Nocturne has created a highly centralized society whose structure resembles the bureaucracy of a vast corporation, with divisions and departments, a powerful CEO (a.k.a. the elected head of the highest of Nocturne's three governing councils), and a pronounced status differential between the equivalent of blue-collar workers (such as the staff of the Agriculture department, who produce all of Nocturne's food) and those who perform more abstract or theoretical tasks (such as the employees of the Aptitude department, who slot people into appropriate jobs). Over time, this culture has begun to outgrow its setting. Two separate factions in the government, the expansionists and the resourcists, advocate pushing settlement outward -- though they have very different ideas of how to do so. They are opposed by the status quo faction, which doesn't believe expansion is politically or economically feasible.

As often happens, social differences coincide with geography. Jefferson and its residential district, Grosvenor, are the seat of government, housing the more prestigious departments and divisions. Agriculture is based in Kaettegut, a large landmass across the bay, while mining and manufacturing take place in the Back, located on the dark side of the terminator. White-collar Jeffersonians/Grosvenorians look down on blue-collar Kaettegutans and the workers of the Back, who over time have evolved distinctive cultural variations. Yet, as in most class systems, a potent fear lies at the foundation of social prejudice, for Jefferson/Grosvenor could not exist without Kaettegut's food or the Back's factories. Awareness of this interdependence, and resentment of it, stitches a thread of suspicion through interactions at all levels of society -- though in general, the mistrust is implicit rather than expressed.

But that's about to change, with the suddenness of natural disaster. An explosion damages one of Kaettegut's food storage units, injuring several members of an audit team from Jefferson, including its leader, Jenning Crote. Accident? Sabotage? As the media speculates, Chauncey Benner, Agriculture's department head -- and thus the de facto governor of Kaettegut -- tries to uncover the truth, an effort complicated by Jefferson's suspicion of all things Kaettegutan, and the disloyalty of some of her key staff. Meanwhile, in Jefferson, the questions surrounding the explosion bring the differences between the three political parties into sharp relief, and pose frightening questions: have the needs of Nocturnian society evolved beyond the capacity of the existing social system to meet them? Have the system's intrinsic inequities wrought divisions much deeper than anyone realized? As alliances shift at the top of the power structure, and tension builds among ordinary Nocturnians, Jenning Crote struggles to maintain her influence and position, in part by forging an uneasy alliance with Chauncey Benner. And Graham and Kellan, two young Kaettegutan office workers, find themselves swept up into the middle of the political upheaval, pawns in a battle they don't really understand.

Like Ursula K. Le Guin in The Dispossessed, Jus Neuce isn't concerned only with telling a tale of people and events, but with painting a portrait of a society that's fundamentally unlike our own. This she does with impressive depth and consistency. Nocturne, a sort of corporation-without-walls whose rules and protocols are just odd enough to be alien and just recognizable enough to make sense, feels both genuinely unfamiliar and completely authentic. Also like Le Guin, Neuce is interested in exploring the philosophical and moral dilemmas that arise from putting social theory into practice. Though embodying very different ideals from Le Guin's Anarres, Nocturne too is an artificial, planned society, in which the needs of the individual are subordinate to the requirements of the whole, and the individual ignores or opposes those requirements at his or her peril. Again like Anarres, the pressures of the environment and the reality of human nature have caused this social construct to evolve away from the original ideal, often in ways that those living in the society don't consciously recognize. No matter how meticulous the original plan, no matter how faithfully it's put into action, plan and practice inevitably diverge, for such is the unpredictability of human need and human nature. This pivotal understanding is articulated, late in the book, by a character whose political maneuverings have resulted in an unexpected outcome:

He had wanted order, order for the glory of humanity, but without humans gumming it up. Humanity in the abstract. He had been wrong. The humans gumming it up weren't the process, they were the destination. The glory of humanity, right there, in all its self-interest and faults: what truly made them, as a race, unique.
The book's big event occurs in the first few pages, with the rest of the story devoted to its repercussions. Much of the action takes place in offices and boardrooms, with as much (or possibly more) of the narrative given over to characters' internal musings as to what they do and say. Sound dull? It's not. The author brings a surprising level of suspense to what's basically office politics writ large, building tension by frequently intercutting between different points of view, maintaining sympathy by interweaving the high-stakes political maneuvering with Graham's and Kellan's much smaller, very personal, and quite touching, story. As the hidden stresses in Nocturnian society become more explicit, as the factions line up and the rifts between them deepen, the sense of impending calamity intensifies. A final revelation of betrayal carries real emotional punch. At the book's end, Nocturne is poised on the brink of major change -- though exactly what the change will be isn't possible to predict. (Neuce is working on a sequel, so presumably we'll find out.)

The author makes no concessions to readers' unfamiliarity with her world and its back story, plunging right into the narrative and leaving it to the reader to figure out the extremely complicated context. This makes for rough going in the first few chapters, where it's very easy to lose track of names, and some scenes need to be read twice in order to be properly understood. (The Glossary at the back of the book provides some enlightenment -- it's a good idea to read it first -- but could have benefited from expansion, such as the inclusion of a character list and a chart of divisions and departments.) Certain important things are not made clear. According to the Glossary, the educational system has replaced the nuclear family, but we never actually discover how this works, making it difficult to understand why the different schools have such an impact on social status. Also, though Neuce evokes a strong sense of place, mainly through characters' perceptions and reactions, there's little physical description of Nocturne itself. It's hard to envision the environment, and thus to comprehend the physical challenges that surely did much to shape Nocturnian society -- and which lend such urgency to the current crisis.

This eschewing of any sort of explanation, as well as the characters' sometimes excessively circuitous thought processes, sometimes works against the author's intentions. For instance, it isn't until about a third of the way in that it becomes clear that Graham and Kellan aren't lovers, that in fact Graham harbors an unrequited passion for Kellan and Kellan is totally unaware of it. Earlier scenes between the two of them, which make perfect sense if you know their real relationship, read quite oddly if you don't. Ditto for Graham's reveries in the initial chapters, which seem overwrought unless you understand the real nature of his inner conflict.

Nocturne is a difficult book, both by design and by omission. It certainly won't suit every taste. If you're looking for the high-tech excitement of a space opera, or the epic adventure of a planetary saga, you won't find it here. What you will find is a thoughtful examination of a society in transition, and of the stresses that engender social change. Flaws and all, it's one of the more original debuts I've read this year, and also one of the most intelligent.

Copyright © 2006 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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