Author: Genevieve Valentine
Publisher: Saga Press
I first became aware of Genevieve Valentine through her wonderfully crafted short
stories. In 2011 Valentine published her first novel, Mechanique, to great acclaim
-- including a Nebula nomination -- but I somehow missed it. In 2014 she
published her second novel, The Girls at the Kingfisher Club, and despite the buzz
I again managed to miss it. When I saw her third novel, Persona, at a bookstore
recently, I resolved to atone for past sins and pushed it to the top of my reading
Getting hooked by the novel's premise and falling prey to its adrenalized plot was
easy. Persona plunges us headfirst into a future society in which "Faces" --
specially chosen representatives of various nation alliances, trained and instructed
on what to say by shadowy handlers -- conduct, or give the illusion of conducting,
political negotiations at summits such as the fictional International Assembly.
Faces are the ultimate celebrities, and an armada of paparazzi, or "snaps," build
their careers by following them and recording their every exploit. Persona opens
with an attempted assassination on Suyana Supaki, the Face of the United
Amazonian Rainforest Confederation, and her rescue by a snap named Daniel.
Unlikely allies, Suyana and Daniel endure several white-knuckle escapades
through Paris, eluding mortal dangers while becoming ever more enmeshed in a
sophisticated intrigue of paranoid and ruthless politics.
Valentine manages the tricky job of fully developing her characters while at the
same time moving at a brisk pace. In fact, it took me a couple of chapters to really
get my bearings, which is a testament to Valentine's commitment to straight-ahead
storytelling rather than lengthy explanations. Valentine also excels at depicting the
micro-elements of human interactions at close quarters. Her deft, concise
descriptions render her places and characters fully alive. Loyalty and conviction in
one's beliefs are thematic through lines in Persona and Valentine often condenses
her character's musings in acerbic turns of phrase, such as this one: "Most of the
time Suyana wanted to strangle him. She measured her success as a diplomat by
how little he caught on."
Much of the novel is structured as a game of cat and mouse, and as long as we're
swept breathlessly from one event and revelation to the next, the story is
engrossing and immersive. Alternating between Suyana and Daniel as viewpoint
characters is also an effective narrative stratagem. Once the dust has settled,
though, questions remain: how did our current society evolve into the novel's (in
what must have been a short time)? Where are the kinds of technologies we might
reasonably expect in the near future, such as 3D printing, nanotech, advanced
robotics or next-gen genomics?
At first glance, Persona might seem to inhabit the same conceptual space as sf
satires like Frederik Pohl and Cyril M. Kornbluth's The Space Merchants (1952),
where Faces are a proxy for our own culture's shallowness and narcissism. But
Valentine isn't working in a satirical mode here as much as she is that of a
political/eco-thriller or spy story. Indeed, the sf elements throughout the novel are
liminal. Persona is more like Dean Koontz's Dark Rivers of the Heart, say, than
Alfred Bester's The Demolished Man; more Bourne than Brave New World.
Stylistically, Valentine does some interesting things throughout, but not all of
them worked for me. For example, her frequent use of parenthetical annotations to
describe character's perceptions and memories was a bit puzzling. I suppose these
parentheses could denote the more fragmentary nature of consciousness in
Persona's celebrity-obsessed future, but I had a hard time warming up to them.
Also, I felt like Valentine's prose, usually graceful, showed signs of being a tad
rushed during the novel's final scenes.
But these are quibbles, and they shouldn't stop you from relishing a propulsive,
tightly plotted, artfully executed novel.
Title: Romance on Four Worlds: A Casanova Quartet
Author: Tom Purdom
Publisher: Fantastic Books
Tom Purdom has been writing high quality science fiction for some time. The
August 1957 issue of Science Fiction Quarterly contained his story "A Matter of
Privacy," and the recent April-May 2015 double issue of Asimov's features his tale
"Day Job." And yet despite his tenure in the field and the excellence of his work
-- which has inspired Michael Swanwick, Jeffrey Ford, Gregory Frost and
Gardner Dozois, among others, to sing his praises -- he is not particularly well-known with modern readers, probably because his specialty, despite a handful of
novels in the 1960s and 1970s, is the short form. Thus it was a particular treat
when Fantastic Books brought us Lovers & Fighters, Starships & Dragons,
Purdom's (first!) collection in 2014. And so it is a particular delight again that
Fantastic Books has now issued Romance on Four Worlds, a collection of four
thought-provoking, richly realized novellas centered on the subject of romantic
love against the backdrop of a Solar System in various stages of human
The four novellas, published in Asimov's over the course of a decade, share the
same viewpoint protagonist, Joseph Louis Baske, who has decided to make the
exploration of romantic relationships his life's central purpose. Early on Baske
recounts reading Casanova's memoirs and finding much of himself in them. He
shares with us -- and this is a point that Purdom elaborates on in the Afterword --
that Casanova was not a compulsive seducer simply trying to conquer as many
women as possible, but rather a serial monogamist who truly and intimately loved
each woman with whom he shared affections. In turn, Baske himself is not simply
a futuristic Casanova, but the inhabitant of a future in which technology has
profoundly transformed the landscape of human interactions. "Modification
clinics," for instance, allow the tweaking and even complete rewriting of one's
personality traits. In Casanova's time, "character was destiny," but in Baske's
world character itself has become a "personal choice."
"Romance in Lunar G," the first novella, chronicles Baske's frustrated pursuit of
Malita Divora, an artist who has no interest in the kinds of emotionally intense
sexual relationships that he favors. In "Romance in Extended Time" we shift to a
globe-circling biodome on Mercury and Baske's tryst with Ling Chime, a
relationship that plunges him deep into the local politics surrounding the Conclave
of Talents. "Romance with Phobic Variations," set on Phobos, explores a
swindling act fronted by Aki Nento, a woman who has been specifically tailored to
be irresistible to Baske. Finally, in "Romance for Augmented Trio," Baske and his
then partner, the transhuman Ganmei, must defeat a robot-aided psychotic at the
outskirts of the Kuiper Belt.
Against these exotic settings and a series of prolific sf-nal extrapolations that
recall John Varley at his best, several grounding humanist ideas recur. One is the
importance of empathy. Early on Baske confides, "The shortest route to someone's
affections -- male or female -- is to listen." In the second novella he reflects: "All
real love affairs involve three things: sexual union, shared experience, and talk."
And so on.
Another motif is baroque classical music, and its importance not just to Baske's
sense of his own identity, but as a means of sharing aesthetic pleasure with his
partners. Surely it is no coincidence that the two enhancements he has undergone
in his life have been total control over his sexual physiological responses and the
ability to play the 18th century violin.
Purdom's treatment of situations and subjects that could easily be melodramatic,
solipsistic, or even embarrassing is consistently thoughtful, sensitive and mature.
There is a meditative quality in these novellas that hovers above even the most
climactic sequences. But that's not to suggest they're not exciting. In one of the
essays gathered in Reentry and Other Thoughts on Science Fiction, Purdom
writes, "At seventy-seven, it [science fiction] offers me vicarious adventures in the
futures I won't live to see. But the underlying message hasn't changed. The world
is an exciting place." Above all, these four novellas convey to us that sense of
endless possibility, offering marvelous vistas into splendidly realized futures full
of literal and emotional color.
Read more by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro