Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Another Dimension
  Book Reviews by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro
May 2019

Title: The Light Brigade
Author: Kameron Hurley
Publisher: Gallery / Saga Press

Let me say right upfront that my overall response to Kameron Hurley's latest novel, The Light Brigade, looks to be at odds with the book's widespread reception by readers and reviewers alike. In fact, I would be surprised if this book didn't appear on next year's Hugo ballot, and I predict it will likely pick up other plaudits along the way. So, to be clear: I am in the minority on this one, an outlier, and your opinion will likely diverge significantly from mine. The best way to find out just how much you disagree with me, of course, is to read the book for yourself. In the spirit of lively discussion and active engagement with our genre, then, please don't take my word for any of this.

I was initially captivated, and thoroughly engrossed during the first eight or nine chapters. During this stretch of the book we meet our protagonist Dietz, who along with six friends, enlists in the Tene-Silvia Corporate Corps after a devastating event known as the Blink kills Dietz's family and destroys the life Dietz once knew. Dietz's first-person narration is concise, often blunt: "I want to kill aliens." Later on Dietz explains: "There are many fronts in this war. Humans are spread out as far as the asteroid belt. We were on the moon, too, before the enemy hit it so badly that we cleared out." It's not clear exactly who--"Martians," an offshoot for humanity, seem the likely culprits--was responsible for that instantaneous destruction of two million lives in São Paulo. Dietz's determination to exact revenge for this atrocity and determine who really did it, as well as find out why, drives much of the story. We witness the harsh training to which Dietz is subjected, enduring all sorts of grueling, inhumane psychological and physical trials--"Only one percent of people are psychopaths. The rest of us have to learn."--and Dietz's first experiences with actual combat. These sequences are both pulse-pounding and violence-laden. For deployment, the soldiers' bodies are converted into energy and then re-materialized into flesh at the designated target coordinates: they are literally turned into light. Initially this introduces some confusion for Dietz, which Dietz's superiors simply dismiss as a side-effect of the beaming process. But as the novel progresses, and we learn more both about the corporate-dominated future that Dietz inhabits, and the backstory of Dietz's family prior to the Blink, that sense of disorientation deepens into something much more profoundly destabilizing. Characters and locales shift; time jumps forward, then back, then forward again. Starting with Chapter 7, we're presented with ongoing interviews--read, questioning sessions--with subject #187799 that raise their own questions regarding Dietz's past and eventual future. The first two or three of these exchanges I found interesting. But, as with the combat set pieces and temporal slippage, eventually I found them repetitive, and felt myself growing more distant from, rather than absorbed by, the story. The final resolution came too abruptly, and didn't for me provide a satisfying sense of closure.

Looking back, the way that time travel is embedded into the novel's narrative structure may have been the most challenging authorial choice for me to get behind. Just as I was starting to develop a sense of rapport with Dietz, the story's fragmentation foregrounded for me a more intellectual puzzle that diminished the book's affect. As the interviews continued, too, I found them to be peppered with prose more lecturing than persuasive, further alienating me from the experience I'd started having.

Despite bouncing off the last two thirds of the novel, I was still able to appreciate how Hurley crafted in a plethora of allusions along the way. As Hurley herself says in the Acknowledgments, "There are many cribbed references in this particular work. I'll let you all enjoy ferreting them out, but know that yes, they are--in nearly every case--willful homages." These include Starship Troopers, The Forever War, works by Kurt Vonnegut, Frank Herbert and James Tiptree Jr. Certain scenes, particularly the early hell training "montage," for me evoked the films Full Metal Jacket, G. I. Jane, and Edge of Tomorrow; the soldiers' desperation and remoteness brought to mind series like Space: Above and Beyond, as well as the war-related arcs of shows like Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Babylon 5 (especially the episode "GROPOS") and the reimagined Battlestar Galactica. In a way, the time travel machinations anticipate season two of Star Trek: Discovery.

These references, and individually captivating chapters, were enough to keep me turning the pages, but by the time I reached the end I didn't feel like it all added up to a cohesive whole. The military sf aspects, I think, are by themselves solidly done, though the gore ultimately becomes deadening, and much of this material feels familiar; Hurley enlisted help in coming up with "a directed Hamiltonian path through a bipartite graph" for the time travel structure, and while my inner physics geek finds that delectable, it didn't help with the story's flow; finally, Dietz's abilities, as ultimately revealed, came across as a somewhat jarring leap into the superhero genre. There are occasional repetitions throughout (e.g., "I didn't like people telling me what I could do," Dietz says in Chapter 1, and then in Chapter 5, "I have a problem with authority, though. I hate it when people tell me what to do"). The commentary inserted into the interviews often broke the spell. Consider, for instance, our interview subject waxing eloquent about the concept of doppelgangers:

The word comes from the German, meaning 'double-goer.' To see a doppelganger of a loved one or relative was said to be a harbinger of their death or illness. If you saw one of yourself, it was an omen of your own death. The Egyptians had a related concept, a spirit double. But if you go back long enough, yes . . . the Zoroastrians, back in Babylonian times, in Persia, the idea of these doubles, these twin selves . . . they represented good and evil. You see that idea brought forward in a lot of other cultures. A doppelganger isn't just a double, but an evil double, a terrible twin to you. I always found it funny that the doppelganger is supposed to be the evil one, though, don't you? Just as likely that the original is the evil one, and the doppelganger the good. But that goes against our natural inclination to see ourselves as the heroes of our own stories, and the other as the outsider, the enemy, the one trying to take away everything we have. I . . . could go on, if you'll allow me a cup of water.

Interesting material, but not particularly emotionally involving or credible during a prisoner's interrogation. And despite Hurley's evident care for scientific soundness and plausibility, certain details struck me as ringing false notes (e.g. in Chapter 2, Dietz says, "How long does light take to get to Mars? About twelve and a half light-minutes." Why not just say minutes? The use of light-minutes here seems unnecessarily confusing, since a light-minute is a term normally used to express the distance traveled by light in a minute, and isn't itself a unit of time.)

As I mentioned at the outset, most readers don't seem to be tripping on these elements the way I did, and are finding Dietz's journey a compelling one. Join the light brigade and find out where you land. "A human being with hope can continue on far longer than one without," the interview subject says, and I, for one, remain hopeful about Hurley's next imaginative outing.

Title: Perihelion Summer
Author: Greg Egan
Publisher: Tor.com

Greg Egan's Perihelion Summer wastes no time introducing its central premise, namely the launch and operation by Matt and some of his friends of the seafaring vehicle called Mandjet: "On the Mandjet," Matt explains, "we'll be self-sufficient in food, and pretty much immune to sea-level changes." Though officially designed as an aquaculture project "that could help a lot of people," Matt's endeavor becomes hyper-relevant in the wake of astronomers' discovery of Taraxippus, a black hole the entrance of which into our Solar System has the potential to wreak massive havoc on Earth. After reading this short novel's blurbs, I imagined a far-reaching apocalypse that would push our pale blue dot, and perhaps a few other astronomical bodies, into realms of extreme physics, and well past their breaking points. Egan, however, goes a different route. We soon learn that the black hole--which is discovered to be a binary system of two singularities, hence Taraxippoi--will not be immediately devastating to our world. Instead:

What they would do, though, as they passed by on the outer side of the orbit, was turn the Earth's velocity vector to point a little farther away from the sun. And by forcing it to veer off the road this way they were letting it do all the damage itself: the effect of that slight change in direction would build up over time, long after they were gone. So although the old and new orbits agreed in March and September, in June the planet would be 7 percent farther from the sun, and in December 10 percent closer.

The net impact of these orbital changes? Humans will have to adapt to "ten degrees Celsius colder in June, and fifteen degrees warmer in December." Thus, Egan has in effect cleverly compressed the timescale of certain modern-day global climate change predictions into a period of several years, rather than decades, and displaced the cause to an extrasolar agent beyond dispute. The novel chronicles, in episodic fashion, Matt's challenges onboard the Mandjet, his relationship with his family--early on we meet his sister Selena, and learn that their parents have refused to join the crew, preferring to take their chances on land--and his friends, and the overcoming of various obstacles external and internal. These misadventures and conflicts unfold in the dual contexts of social policy discussions and a fascinating attention to scientific detail.

The orbitally-induced climate changes create massive pressures on the populations that inhabit the most seasonally affected countries, leading to vast migratory waves. This informs part of the book's ongoing examination of the morality of various immigration strategies. Consider, for instance, the following lines, which we can easily imagine in a contemporary newspaper article: "'The quotas we've set for climate migrants are the most generous in the world,' the minister for Home Affairs read from her autocue. 'But we cannot and will not allow our sovereignty to be undermined in the name of some false idea of compassion.'" Egan does a thorough job of examining pros and cons for various positions, filtered by Matt's deeply humanistic point of view. Other adaptive responses include the construction, around Singapore and Dubai for example, of a photovoltaic glass enclosure, while other cities like Shanghai opt instead for "a multitude of smaller domes." Nevertheless, as the situation becomes more drastic and resources sparse, many undertake dangerous oceanic voyages, leading to weekly tallies of drownings that reach four digits in the Mediterranean and five in the South China Sea.

Matt's attitude, and that of his companions, is typically measured and rooted in a kind of pragmatic techno-optimism which allows seemingly small innovations to go a long way. Sustenance aboard the Mandjet, for instance, is largely provided by the net-enabled farming of cobia, which in turn are fed maggots whose "CRISPR'd genes and algal supplements added all the right oils needed to provide the cobia with a balanced diet." When planning a particularly risky maneuver, Egan treats us to this signature exchange: "'I'm impressed that you can still remember the formula for Stokes drift,' Matt confessed. 'I don't think I've ever used that since my final fluid dynamics exam.' 'What's to remember? It's just dimensional analysis: if you screwed up the formula, the units would make no sense.'" There are other fascinating glimpses of the scientific worldview at work, such as the reasoning for why the initially single black hole must in fact be two entities ("The square of the radius was supposed to be proportional to the black hole's mass divided by its distance. If the trajectory computed from the first two sightings was even remotely correct, the size of the ring should have more than doubled") or later the engineering of a new kind of biodiesel.

The action occurs in spurts, and accelerates towards the end of the book, particularly after the Mandjet assimilates an additional crew of Sri Lankans and is forced to deal with, you guessed it, pirates. "Pirates of the Antarctic: Fury Road," Matt ironically but not inaccurately reflects. Despite these events, the overall plotting proceeds quite placidly, with time for the types of ideological and conceptual asides I've suggested. Anyone expecting far-out physics and insane planetary sunderings will be disappointed. Think of this as Egan working in a kind of Kim Stanley Robinson clifi-mode, albeit in a more compressed style.

My initial response to this book was intellectual appreciation coupled with a kind of emotional apathy. Matt didn't particularly grab me, and throughout the novel we're not given access to the kind of rich inner life that would have hooked me on an affective level. Other characters, like Aaron and Arun, don't fare much better. The repertoire of responses by everyone seems a bit limited, often defaulting to embarrassment (e.g. "Aaron managed an embarrassed smile," "Aaron's face flushed with embarrassment," "Matt mumbled something incoherent, embarrassed by his stench and half-nakedness"). But upon reading and re-reading Perihelion Summer's final page, I re-evaluated this opinion and found myself deeply moved. In Matt's case, at least, there is a subtle dramatic arc that plays out just below the narrative's surface, one that culminates in shuddering catharsis that retroactively infuses what came before with a sense of pathos I'd missed. The science scaffolding of Egan's narrative is impeccably erected, and the story moves deliberately rather than languorously. I'm appreciative, upon consideration, for the lack of histrionics and the overall contemplative feel. There's a certain sardonic tone too (e.g. "I guess when the world's falling apart, the last thing anyone wants is to be stuck on a boat with their ex") that I came to appreciate. I still wish certain elements, like character dynamics, had been developed at greater length, but given the constraints of Egan's wordcount, I think Perihelion Summer acquits itself well.

If there is a theme to this month's column, it may be how expectations can work against our enjoyment of stories. The promotional copy I'd seen for The Light Brigade conjured up a visionary reinterpretation of military sf tropes that turned out to be quite different from Hurley's direction; likewise, early descriptions of Perihelion Summer, combined with my familiarity with many of Egan's previous works, led to me envision a much more astrophysics-centered tale than the one Egan chose to write. This is not so much a case of "buyer beware," then, as it is one of "anticipator beware."

Read more by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro

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