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Crescent City Rhapsody
Kathleen Ann Goonan
Avon Eos Books, 430 pages

Crescent City Rhapsody
Kathleen Ann Goonan
Kathleen Ann Goonan belongs to a new generation of writers exploring the cutting edge of technology and its potential impact on humans, to considerable literary effect. The first novel of her Nanotech Cycle, Queen City Jazz (1994), was praised by Locus and was designated a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. The story was taken up in her third novel, Mississippi Blues. She has also published the unrelated The Bones of Time, a science fiction novel connecting Hawaii's King Kamehameha and space travel, as well as a number of short stories. Kathleen Ann Goonan lives in Lakeland, Florida.

Kathleen Ann Goonan Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Queen City Jazz

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Jean-Louis Trudel

Kathleen Ann Goonan's latest novel shows that the most exciting thing about a nanotechnological world may not be its ultimate fruits but the transition needed to bring it about.

A prequel of sorts to Goonan's Queen City Jazz, the story of Crescent City Rhapsody takes place several years before the events depicted in the earlier work. The novel opens with the murder of Marie Laveau, in the heart of New Orleans' French Quarter. However, Marie, a central figure of the local underworld, had already contracted for her resurrection, which would require using the latest nanotechnological and bioengineering techniques. Brought back to life, she will play an ever larger role in the adoption of nanotechnology by her hometown.

Meanwhile, Zeb, up in Virginia, is on the ground floor when Earth receives its first real greetings from outer space. He may be a burned out genius and an overly medicated radio-astronomer with a bipolar condition, but he is also lucky enough to record the coherent signals that are transmitted along with the electromagnetic pulses that devastate the infrastructure of the United States. And naïve enough to let a friend in government know...

To each book its own rhythm. Crescent City Rhapsody offers a panoramic view of a near future where semiconductor-based civilization has been cut off at the knees by repeating pulses from outer space. Zeb, after attempting to let the world know of his observations, finds that the better part of valour may be a life on the streets of Washington, DC, as an eccentric bum with a notebook full of secrets.

The action unfolds over two decades, as the world is seized by an all-consuming transformation that it only dimly understands. Lives are changed, scattered, wasted. The children of the Silence, as the impact of the EM pulses is known, are endowed with strange powers. On opposite sides of the world, Illian, the young Tibetan refugee, and Jason, the American boy raised on the road, grow up to discover they are being actively hunted. In Japan, a nanotechnologist is preparing the tools of a new era, when human minds will become as malleable as any other raw material. In Southeast Asia, a young man who tried to help Illian has become a terrorist, without ever quite forgetting his vanished friend. And, back in New Orleans, Marie Laveau is planning a new kind of city, a stronghold of liberty and free inquiry.

For the old structures are crumbling, governments are fragmenting, and humanity is experimenting haphazardly with the awesome powers of its new creations. Places of refuge are needed, to escape from the last gasps of state repression and the unfocused craziness of new style terrorists.

The various subplots are slow to converge, but converge they do. Goonan has conceived her novel as something of a jazz rhapsody, a work of many pieces stitched together, free and easy. Extended sequences end with sudden shifts to a distant locale that may never be visited again. Some stories progress by leaps and bounds, while each glimpse of Zeb, trapped in his Washington madness, provides a steady background beat. But the novel's seeming anarchy and irregular rhythm work better than more cut-and-dried structures; there is something organic and true in its slow build-up. And in its culmination in an outburst of music, song, and wild dance.

Goonan describes a quilt-like future that is also stitched from many pieces. However catastrophic they are for modern civilization, the pulses from outer space only play a precipitating role. The ambience of voudoun, the magnetic sense of humans, the revolutions wrought by neurobiological discoveries, the many faces of nanotechnology -- all are part of the changes affecting the world. It is their confluence that fires the imagination.

This is a novel for the leisurely reader. Some of its ideas are not quite as fresh as they might have been five or ten years ago, but the author has some stunners up her sleeve. Still, among the book's chief pleasures are not just Goonan's ideas but her writing style, her wit, and the tenderness she shows for her characters. In particular, the relationship between Marie Laveau and her bodyguard Hugo is to be savoured; their easy banter brings to mind that of Nick and Nora Charles in Dashiel Hammett's The Thin Man.

Most technological revolutions are the product of a combination of ground-breaking innovation. The original Industrial Revolution drew upon the invention of Watt's steam engine, new ways of producing cast iron, and the mechanization of weaving. The industrial revolution of the early 20th century was built upon the internal combustion engine, the production of synthetics, and widespread electrification. Nanotechnology will almost certainly develop as part of a front of new technologies, and, if it does, the fun, the confusion, and the sheer terror may not be so different from what Goonan portrays in Crescent City Rhapsody...

Copyright © 2000 by Jean-Louis Trudel

Jean-Louis Trudel is a busy, bilingual writer from Canada, with two novels and fourteen young adult books to his credit in French. He's also a moderately prolific reviewer and short story writer.

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