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Musing on Books
Cagebird, by Karin Lowachee, Warner Aspect, 2005, $6.99.
THIS column used to have a slightly different title (Guilty Pleasures), because at that time in my life—with a new baby, deadlines, new house with attendant new bills—reading, the act of sitting down in a chair for my own pleasure and edification, was, to me, a guilty pleasure, and was usually followed by a guiltier "I should be writing, doing housework, playing with the baby." At that time, much of what I read for, and hungered for, was the comfort of reading, and even comfort reading, and if I have a broad sense of comfort, this defined the books I picked up and finished for a long time.
Things move and change with time; children get older, time comes back, life picks up the hallowed pieces and moves on. Before I had children and exited the much-loved routine of my bookstore life, I often moved into emotional dead zones. Sometimes these used to be retreats, and sometimes they were just states that existed, like a layer between my sense of the world and the world itself.
My way out of these was to read something, but in these states, I was often hypercritical; that hind brain that wanted comfort clashed with the front brain that wanted logic and rationality, that swamped the ability to suspend disbelief and go with the fairy tale. So a book at that time had to have one of two things (or preferably both)—it had to have an emotional viscerality that made it so immediate it moved beneath the skin and logic, evading all defenses, or it had to be built in an irreproachably clear and rational way.
Oh, and the language itself had to move me; the words had to have a cadence that was more, much more, than simple journalism.
This has been my state of mind this month; many books that would normally fulfill a need have failed to reach me in that dead zone.
Robert Charles Wilson's latest novel, Spin, was therefore not only a fine novel, but also a godsend. In some ways, it is his most traditional sf novel—an almost golden age what-if story, with widgets and edges and some very clear thought and extrapolation. But the golden age of sf was decades ago, and from that tradition, this novel emerges, like the full plant from seedlings.
From the viewpoint of a boy and his twin friends, whose story, interwoven between the past and the present, forms the core of the novel, we watch as one October night on the edge of a childhood that is evaporating, the stars go out. Not slowly, but all at once, like a great eclipse of everything visual.
Without stars, nautical ships in the old days would have lost all bearing, and in some ways, without stars, so does the contemporary world Wilson paints. No stars, no known spatial geography, and no answers about the phenomenon that affects the entire world have a different effect on each of the three friends who witness it, and Wilson is such a master of observation that the differences are multilayered, complex, and very real.
Tyler Dupree, the narrator, son of the housekeeper to the Lawtons, is no dummy, but he might as well be, in the presence of Diane and James Lawton, brilliant fraternal twins a year and a half older, educated at the most prestigious of institutions money could buy. James's father, E.D., is not exactly a self-made man, but he intends that his son be his worthy heir, and has defined everything about his son's life, pushing him and encouraging his curiosity, his burning desire for knowledge.
It is James whose life becomes the Spin, as the barrier is eventually dubbed. James, who is at the edge of all the information money and connections can buy; James, who understands that time moves at a normal pace within the Spin—but that normal is all relative; for every second that passes on Earth, within the Spin, years pass in the universe outside. Even Tyler can do the math: by the time he's forty, if they're lucky, the sun will be dying and the world will be a large, empty rock, stripped of atmosphere and life.
But the Spin is clearly technological. And while James races time—the world's, his own—to come up with a solution that will save the human race in general, if not in specific, Diane faces the end of the world in a different way, and Tyler, being Tyler, goes on with his life, accepting the generosity—the horrible, condescending generosity—of E. D. Lawton to go to medical school, to become a doctor, to act as if things will go on. But his life is entwined with the twins, with their work, with his own attachment to the past, and his hope for the future, which rests on their shoulders, their achievements and their failures.
I want to go on. I want to say something about the Mars colony, the seeding of a planet, the results within a week of Earth time, a year of Earth time, all of this brilliantly and minimally conceived by Wilson; I want to talk about the results of that experiment, the resulting very credible political struggles. I want to—as I often do—wax eloquent about his characters, his ability to create the real with grace and compassion; to hold judgment in abeyance, or to temper it with understanding.
Instead, I will say that Wilson is always a fabulous writer, with a gift for dialogue and an insight into how people would react in situations they would never face in real life. What he often fails to do is end his work, or to end it in a way that holds the strength of the rest of the book. He is one of the very, very few writers I read regardless; his writing speaks very strongly to me, and in the end, the emotional texture of the journey is worth whatever finish line he arrives at.
And so back to Spin. This is Wilson's finest work to date, and the caveat about endings does not in any way apply. (I'm told this book is the start of a trilogy, but if no one had told me, I would not have guessed.) His quiet, evocative language, his nod to the nuclear generation—the children who grew up knowing that there wouldn't be a world to come home to because they knew some madman was going to push a red button and there wasn't a damn thing they could about it—and the hard sf inventiveness that is often overlooked in his work because his work has so much else that is compelling, combine here in perfect balance.
We move from the complex and complicated what-if of a future Earth to the space opera universe that Karin Lowachee first showed us in Warchild.
This time, she gives us Yuri's life, alternating between his present course and the past that defined him. Yuri is another of Falcone's damaged protégés, another failed experiment, another life haunted by a dead man's ghost. But unlike Jos Musey from Warchild, who escaped Falcone as a child, Yuri stayed with him until he was in his late teens; this is as much of the pirate culture as Lowachee has yet revealed.
At the end of Burndive, Yuri was incarcerated, and that's where this story begins: in jail, in a holding cell, in the company of a government interrogator. Or two. The second, a diffident, attractive, friendly man, is part of the covert Black Ops, and he offers Yuri freedom—of a sort—in exchange for information.
But Yuri has made possibly his first real mistake in prison; he's attached himself to another young man, named Finch, someone he sees as weak, dependent, and his. Yuri is an interesting blend of the cunning and the almost naïve; all of his considerable intellect is honed and focused to a single point: surviving pirate culture, and staying on top of it.
Finch is the card played against him, and in the end, it is for Finch's safety that he barters, agreeing to a freedom that seems a lot like certain death. He wanted out. He botched that. Out is a jail cell.
He's offered the life he attempted to abandon: the pirate ship that was both his command and his prison. Maybe he can take it back, and hold it, if he can convince the other pirates that his freedom is not a ruse.
But the plan to spring him develops a snag when he insists that Finch go with him; he intends for Finch to be freed, but Ops has other ideas; they send Finch with him to a ship that's not quite home. And Finch has never been a pirate.
Yuri is a killer, but he is not a machine; Lowachee's ability to create a believable and vulnerable child killer makes the early part of this book Lowachee's darkest journey yet. Yuri's early life plagues him because he shares it in his sleep, in his walking sleep, with Finch, speaking names that mean everything and nothing to his companion: Bo-Sheng. Estienne. Falcone.
Finch asks questions. His quiet presence demands answers that Yuri is almost—but not quite—incapable of giving. He can see what he saw as a child, and evaluate it as an adult, and in the end, balancing all of the needs, the hopes, and the guilt of that early life, he must make—truly make—a choice.
One of the many things I admire about Lowachee's writing is her ability to speak in different voices; to find the core of a character, to speak and think in a way that makes each character distinctly different from any other character she's created.
This novel is not about the sparkling idea, the shiny new technology; it is about, instead, simple and complex emotional motivation, human choices and weaknesses, all the consequences that are the fallout of those things. Lowachee is not merely a talent to enjoy, but one to envy.
Although Lowachee's novels in this universe, Warchild, Burndive and Cagebird, each stand alone, I think they're best read as a single piece, as an examination, among other things, of how much two men impact the lives of three children, and how that shapes the people they become. I've said this before, and I'll say it again; she reminds me very much of early C. J. Cherryh, and there's not much higher accolade.
Where Wilson is almost elegant in his compassion, Lowachee is visceral—but they both bring an understanding to their people that I find utterly convincing, and in the end, it's that conviction that captivates me.
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