Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Another Dimension
  Book Reviews by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro
May 2015

Title: Persona
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 pile.

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 colonization.

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

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