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Regenesis, by C. J. Cherryh, DAW, 2010, $7.99.
Up Jim River, by Michael Flynn, Tor Books, 2010, $25.99.
Majestrum, by Matthew Hughes, Night Shade Books, 2007, $14.99.
The Spiral Labyrinth, by Matthew Hughes, Night Shade Books, 2008, $14.99.
Hespira, by Matthew Hughes, Night Shade Books, 2009, $14.99.
SCIENCE fiction is a three-headed beast, like the one that guards the gates of Hell. Every good sf novel has three main characters. First come the actual characters. Second, the science ideas. Third, the universe in which both characters and ideas operate.
Cut through the eternal debate about whether this or that book is "hard sf" or "literary sf" or "space opera" and you can make a pretty good argument that every book in the genre can be mapped onto a triangle composed of those three cardinal points: character, science, worldbuilding. A good sf novel keeps you reading because you want to find out what happens to the characters. Or because you want to understand the science. Or for the sheer thrill of exploring the imaginary world the writer has invented. If you don't keep reading for one of these three reasons, then either it's not an sf book…or it's not an sf book you're going to finish.
Of course the best sf keeps you reading for all three reasons. It defies categorization by melding characters, science, and world into a brilliantly coherent unity. That's what we're all secretly hoping to find when we open a new sf novel. We don't find it often, because even the very best writers can't hit a grand slam every time they come to the plate.
But C. J. Cherryh can hit the grand slam. Maybe not every time, but damn near. She can do it in almost every corner of our genre, from science-driven hard sf to action-packed space operas with cats on the covers. And she can do it across the whole stylistic spectrum of sf, from YA fare to literary sf.
That ability makes Cherryh almost as uncategorizable as Robert Heinlein, and I suspect it's why so many fans have a love-hate relationship with both authors. Rare is the reader who truly loves both Starship Troopers and Stranger in a Strange Land. Equally rare is the reader who truly loves both Cherryh's Chanur books and the sprawling, dysfunctional psychodrama of Cyteen.
Which is, I suppose, the first thing you need to know about Regenesis. It is a close sequel to Cherryh's dark, convoluted psycho-thriller, Cyteen. So if you didn't like Cyteen, then boy, are you going to hate this novel.
Starting off slowly, with long chunks of character-and-action-free worldbuilding, is par for the course in the Cyteen universe. That long slow roll of pages is how Cherryh draws us into this complex world, and you can't hurry the process any more than you can hurry a Charles Dickens novel.1
Still, the opening of Regenesis is leisurely even by Cyteen standards. First we get eighteen pages of political background, scientific exposition, and unborn clones gestating in birthlabs. Then we get a letter to a Personal Replica who isn't yet a spark in her Original's eye. Then we get a meeting. And another meeting. Which brings us to page forty-eight with no physical action except some middle-aged bureaucrats getting snarky with each other around a conference table. Welcome back to Cyteen, folks, only the serial numbers on the womb vats have changed.…
It's easy to see such writing as self-indulgent or insufficiently edited. A lot of people saw Cyteen that way. What possible excuse is there for inflicting such long, dry spells of worldbuilding on hapless readers? Especially when they're interspersed with action scenes that prove Cherryh can write tight, economical, fast-paced prose like no one else in the genre. I've spoken to readers who actually threw the book across the room in frustration because they felt Cherryh was willfully wasting their time.
They were wrong, of course.
Because the main character of Cyteen is Cyteen itself. And the true genius of both Cyteen and Regenesis lies precisely in that apparently undisciplined and excessive worldbuilding. In the revelations that will unfold—slowly, almost at a subconscious level—as you allow world and characters to reveal each other.
This is Dickensian worldbuilding. Or Tolkienian if you want an in-genre example.2
It's just one damn turtle after another, detail piled on top of detail, until your brain overloads and stops even being able to think of the world as imaginary…and then you're just in it, body and soul. At which point the Dickensian worldbuilders can start doing the thing they do best. It's a hard thing to describe, since it doesn't quite fit the way we usually think about novels. The closest I can come to it is to say that the sensory and intellectual overload pushes you out of the novel-reading frame of mind and tricks you into treating the writer's world as if it were part of your ordinary life.
It's literary suspension of disbelief squared. The writer floods you with so much data about his imaginary world (be it with debates about post-human politics, or white papers about coal mining, or appendices on Elvish grammar) that you start experiencing cognitive dissonance when you try to remember that it is imaginary. You stop reading it like fiction, and start reading it like you'd read the morning papers. You stop looking for the kind of clear, logical, finite moral lessons you expect to find in novels, even fairly subtle novels. You stop trying to make sense of the world and start simply being in it.
There are lessons in Cyteen and Regenesis, to be sure. But they are the lessons of life, not the lessons of fiction. Sections of Regenesis read like Buddenbrooks. Especially the brilliantly captured father-and-son struggle between Justin Warrick and the deliciously immature and obnoxious Jordan Warrick—whose lamentable lapses of decorum add the same spice to Regenesis that Ari One's Cruella De Vil-esque scheming gave to Cyteen. Other sections of Regenesis read like Seymour Hersh's in-depth White House exposés: page after page of Really Smart People trying to figure out how to solve Really Hard Problems and agonizing over decisions that you just know are going to come back to bite them in the rump sooner or later.
This entangling of the personal and the political cuts to the core of what both Cyteen and Regenesis are about. And it's why people who really get these books talk about "personal replicas" or "azi" or "running tape" in ways that make it clear that these concepts have achieved profound emotional resonance in their real lives. Character on Cyteen is always a confused tangle of the micro and the macro, the personal and the political, the biological and the technological. The coercive nature of Cyteen's society bleeds through into the characters' personal lives, besmirching the little islands of decency they try to build around themselves. And Cherryh lovingly chronicles the bleed-through, creating a rich parable of the little deaths of the soul that we ignore in our own lives because…well…there are times when you just can't look life straight in the eye and still do what you have to do to get through it.
Like Cyteen before it, Regenesis is scattered with brilliant, twisted little gems of worldbuilding that drive this central point home. Cherryh, after all, can feed your paranoia like no other sf writer in the business. Who can resist getting sucked into an imaginary world where surveillance has become so second-nature that the people on your "trusted list" are the ones you keep under constant observation? And who wouldn't be struck by the moment, deep into Regenesis, when Ari Two realizes that her favorite uncle may have fatally betrayed her precisely because of his loyalty to her Original, Ari One? There is some dark and slippery truth about human nature lurking behind that moment. But Cherryh is far too wise to beat the reader over the head with it. She is as demanding of her readers as any writer in our genre, and far more respectful of them than most writers in any genre. What you get out of these books depends heavily on what you bring into them—and that is just as it should be.
If Regenesis has a flaw, it's the inevitable flaw of sequels. At times it reads less like a standalone novel than like the middle 600 pages of an 1800-page book. A lot of Regenesis has that "pausing to fill in backstory and flesh out characters" feeling of the middle third of a long novel. It also ends very much on an unresolved chord. If you think of Regenesis as a standalone novel (or, God forbid, read it without having read Cyteen) you are likely to balk at this. But if you read it in its larger context, the narrative drive of Cyteen will fill your sails from behind…while the hope of eventually finding out what really happens to all these wonderful characters will spur you toward the constantly receding horizon. Because there is a third book coming. Soon. Right? Right???
We've seen the future—and the future is Irish. At least according to Michael Flynn.
Flynn has been writing excellent sf novels for years, but many readers didn't sit up and take notice until his novel Eifelheim was nominated for the 2007 Hugo Award. Since then he has published a handful of truly superior novels, all delicately balanced in that elusive sweet spot between commercial and literary sf. My favorite of these remains The Wreck of the River of Stars, a novel so outrageously, tragically, gorgeously romantic that you'd swear Cordwainer Smith came back from the dead to sit at Flynn's elbow while he wrote it. But I'm not even going to attempt to justify this bias in any rational way, and readers with a yen for wide-ranging space opera may prefer Flynn's last two efforts.
Up Jim River (2010), is the second installment in a far future trilogy that began with The January Dancer (2008). These are epic books written in the kind of ringing prose that's more characteristic of high fantasy than hard sf. On the other hand, the stories and characters are as gritty as they come. There is a plot of sorts, and it's a good one: the kind of classic treasure hunt scenario that has kept thriller writers in business ever since Dashiell Hammett wrote The Maltese Falcon. But the plot's not the point. The point is the worldbuilding. And the world Flynn builds so brilliantly around his troubled characters is…Irish.
I don't know why the Irish occupy such a large swathe of our imagined science fictional future. Maybe it's sheer demographics: the great-great-grandkids of the Potato Famine refugees started to stray away from respectable professions and into the dubious territory of "writing for a living" right around the time it actually became possible for someone to make a living writing science fiction. Or maybe it's the fact that growing up Irish on the I-95 strip anytime in the last forty years was pretty much like growing up in the Galactic Space Bar (which was actually what we called the local diner in my hometown, but don't get me started; I wouldn't be able to stop, and we'd both end up regretting it). Or maybe it's just, you know, that blarney thing.
But there's a risk in all that Irish eloquence. Blarney is like cheesecake. A little goes a long way. Indulge in just one forkful too many, and suddenly the decadence turns from delicious to cloying. I'm not going to say that Flynn has made this mistake in January Dancer and Up Jim River. But he flirts with it.
Still, Flynn is one hell of a silver-tongued Irish devil. Witness the opening lines of Up Jim River:
There is a river on Dangchao Waypoint, a small world appertaining to Die Bold. It is a longish river as such things go, with a multitude of bayous and rapids and waterfalls, and it runs through many a strange and hostile country. Going up it, you can lose everything. Going up it, you can find anything.Such an opening evokes visions of Lord Jim, Heart of Darkness, and the ill-starred cattle drives of a thousand blood-soaked cowboy ballads. And from here in on, things proceed about as you'd expect, given such a beginning. The treasure that everyone is seeking turns out to be a curse; friends turn into enemies and then turn back again…maybe; loyal servants aren't; and if anyone gets out alive, it's only temporary.
As with Regenesis, the second book syndrome does rear its ugly head now and then. Up Jim River has neither the tight-focus intensity of The Wreck of the River of Stars, nor the in-your-face first-book-in-a-monster-trilogy chops of January Dancer. In fact, reading this book around the same time I read Regenesis left me convinced that there's a structural problem with middle books that even the best writers can't entirely overcome. In Up Jim River the problem is exacerbated by the picaresque storyline, in which characters dash from one exotic planet to another with a speed that sometimes left me feeling like I was speed-reading a Lonely Planet guide. About halfway through I found myself exhausted by all the relentless newness and wishing heartily that Flynn would pick some nice world and settle down with it for a while instead of just kissing and running.
Still, that's a quibble. The only real problem with Up Jim River is the middle book thing, and it's hard to complain about it in a world where readers and publishers so voraciously demand big fat trilogies. Readers who prefer tighter, more discretely structured standalone novels may find this book frustrating from time to time. But readers who crave big fat trilogies—and we are legion—will forgive Flynn because we know that he's pacing himself for the long haul.
Henghis Hapthorn is brain candy for the literati. It's A. J. Raffles meets Jack Vance. It's Sherlock Holmes for the post-rational age…with a dash of Bertie Wooster thrown in for comic relief.
For those who know their Strand and Black Mask stories, the Raffles and Holmes parallels should point up both the many strengths—and the one real weakness—of the Henghis Hapthorn books. Here's the basic setup: Henghis Hapthorn is Old Earth's foremost discriminator, a man of flawless logic whose impeccably rational mind is a monument to Reason. Sadly, however, Hapthorn lives on the cusp of two ages. The rational universe is giving way to a magical universe. And Hapthorn is being dragged into the irrational future by the scruff of his well-dressed neck.
The strengths of this premise are obvious the moment you pick up the first book. Hapthorn is delightfully snarky, his world deliciously decadent. He waltzes insouciantly from case to case, encountering aristocrats so refined they are physically incapable of seeing commoners; a political movement that aims to reform society by publicly humiliating celebrities; a sentient ship that goes crazy when its owner is lost in a spelunking accident and starts shanghaiing innocent passengers and forcing them to launch half-baked rescue missions.
The one great weakness of the series is that this sort of character was originally devised for, and remains best suited to, short stories. Hapthorn goes through some impressive character development in the process of coming to terms with the fact that his marvelous logical apparatus is going to be so much squishy junk in the new age of Sympathetic Magic. However, he remains cool and detached and snarky even when his own psyche is crumbling around his ears—so much so that it's hard for the reader to remember his pain, let alone feel it with him.
Of course this is a classic problem in the private eye genre. And it has a classic solution too: Hapthorn just needs a woman to rile him up a little. And in Hespira, book three of the series, she arrives. Need I say that this one is my favorite so far?
Oddly, all three of this month's books point up a structural problem that plagues much of contemporary sf: the trouble of adapting our genre to the series format.
Cherryh and Flynn solve the problem by writing massive single stories in multiple volumes—a classic hard sf structure, but one that saddles the writer with all the structural headaches of middle books. Hughes opts for a straight series structure—but only by spreading Hapthorn's character development and the overarching battle of good against evil exceedingly thin. Neither approach seems to me to dovetail as smoothly with the underlying story structures of sf as the massive standalone books for which the Killer Bs used to be known (think David Brin's Earth). Nor as well as the loosely linked chronicle-of-a-colony style series on which Ben Bova and Kim Stanley Robinson both put their stamp.
Series are a fact of life. Publishers want to sell series. Readers want to read series. Writers are often pushed into writing series whether they want to or not. But though there are many great sf stories that just happen to be so long they have to be published in three or four volumes, there are fewer truly great ongoing sf series. This is especially so in hard sf—and I find myself wondering about that both as a reader and writer of the genre. Is there something in hard sf's intense interweaving of character, science, and world that is inimical to the series format? Can you really create a story that melds character, science, and world into a perfect unity—and then drag the characters back for a reprise after you've already solved the Fate of the Multiverse? I have no answer for you. But, as questions go, it's a fun one to kick around.…
1 I have morbid fantasies of turning a modern-day editor loose on Dickens. First to be sacrificed on the altar of "pacing" would be the regurgitated parliamentary white papers on working conditions in coal mines and woolen mills. Then the unfair and unbalanced caricatures of clergymen and other worthy members of society. Then the many pages devoted to the private joys, woes, and foibles of bit players who never appear again and in no way move the plot forward. And so on and so forth. The result would be tighter, cleaner, faster-paced, more disciplined writing…and not worth the paper on which it was printed.
2 More generically (and at the risk of invoking an overused word in our genre) this kind of worldbuilding is Baroque. John Rupert Martin's 1977 classic Baroque is still the best analysis of how and why Baroque art messes with your brain—and a book that ought to be on every thinking sf writer's reading list.
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