One Sentence Synopsis: A female soldier assigned as the new security captain for a problematic world has to investigate the death of a famous scientist and recover her lost notes before they fall into the wrong hands.
Genre: Post-cyberpunk murder-mystery with an edge of hard science and a lot of political intrigue.
Continuity: Completely stand-alone, though there is sequel potential.
Content: This one isn’t for the kiddies. It has references to sexuality—though it never gets graphic—and same-sex relationships are not considered abnormal. It is also sprinkled with swearing, depending on the character speaking.
This is a great book. It actually sat on my shelf for the better part of a year—I’m not as big into SF as I am fantasy. Not because of any real dislike for SF; it’s just that if I’m going to read genre, I might as well read the genre that I publish in so that I can keep up on what my peers are doing.
Two things made me finally pick up the novel. First, I noticed that Chris was up for the Campbell this year. (That’s the ‘best new SF writer’ award given away with the Hugos.) Secondly, I noticed that Chris had been put on the panel I was going to moderate at Worldcon. (The ‘morality and the writer’ panel. Ironically, I finished the book, but Chris had some other conflict and had to drop out of that panel.)
Either way, I’m glad I picked the book up. It really does deserve the praise it’s been getting. While in some ways it feels like a first novel (I’ll get to those later) it has some very strong points (which I’ll also get to later).
The story is that of Catherine Li, a UN Peacekeeper and commander of a small-unit assault team. Near the beginning of the book, one of her missions goes wrong, and this puts her in political hot water. One of the generals pulls her out—or perhaps fans the flames—and promises Li that if she does one favor, her mistakes will be forgiven. That favor—travel to the world called Compson’s World and investigate the death of the woman who discovered FTL travel.
This plot, on its own, isn’t actually all that original. It goes through the motions of a murder mystery—a good one, admittedly, but not one with any real fantastic discoveries or plot revelations. The real genius in this book is not in plot, or even in character, but in worldbuilding. Moriarty (you’ve gotta love that name for a writer) crafts an amazingly original and interesting post-cyberpunk world. I can’t possibly go into all of the interesting elements of the setting, but I’ll try and give a few.
Li is completely hardwired. She always has access to the net, and to GPS. She always knows where she is, and whenever she looks at someone, she can download everything the databases know about them. There’s a cyberpunk virtual world set overlaying the real world as well, so she can pretty much travel anywhere anytime she wants—she just can’t go there physically. On top of this setting, there’s the mechanics of FTL. Doing FTL jumps causes your memory to degrade. So, soldiers like Li keep their memory backed-up on hard disks set into their heads. After jumping, they download their memories and restore who they used to be.
Like any great setting, the true brilliance of the novel comes not in simply thinking up original concepts, but in integrating them. The themes of memory loss, of ghostly memories resurfacing, and of net-hookup dependence play a vital role in the progression of the characters, and in the workings of the plot. This seamless integration of plot and world is what makes the book such a great read, and is what kept me fascinated all the way to the end. Moriarty considered the ramifications of the various different elements she’d introduced—for instance, Li wonders how much she can really trust her hard memory, since her UN supervisors have access to it. They could have rewritten anything into her past that they want, and she’d never know that the events weren’t true.
Now, there are a few weaknesses to Moriarty’s execution. First off, her descriptions are a bit weak. This grows especially problematic with the cyberspace aspect of the novel, since sometimes it’s very difficult to understand which characters are actually present, and which are only digitally present. I would have liked to have ‘seen’ a bit more throughout the entire novel. In addition, I did have some trouble latching onto Li as a character. Part of this was the memory dump problems, and part of it was because she didn’t come off as very sympathetic near the beginning of the book. I think this problem, however, may be more inherent to my preference for fantasy—that genre tends to spend a lot more time establishing character, and focusing on sympathetic characterization, than contemporary SF does.
Still, I thoroughly enjoyed the book. If you can deal with some profanity and mild sexuality, then I recommend it.
Setting: Great setting elements, as discussed above. Compson’s World is also interesting, in that it’s a futuristic version of a coal-mining town. (In order to use FTL, you need crystals that are found in coal strains on Compson’s World. That is the only place they are found, and they can’t be produced synthetically—and they can’t be mined with heavy equipment, or they’ll break. So, you have a big group of oppressed miners who spend their lives in the mines.)
Originality: Great originality in some of the world elements. I do think that the Compson’s World idea is simply a re-imagining of Dune and its Spice, and the plot itself didn’t feel extremely original. However, this book definitely falls in the ‘new’ category, rather than the ‘rehashed’ category.
Characterization: Two fairly strong characters. (One an AI, who is probably the most interesting in the novel.) Some trouble with Li as a sympathetic character at the beginning, but nothing major. The book does get into some strong explorations of Li as a character, her motivations, and her past—and these are the things that carry the second half of the novel.
Plotting: Good without being great. Enough plot twists to keep things interesting, and some very good storytelling. The end climax wasn’t spectacular—a little ambiguous in places, a little too obvious in places—but it certainly was entertaining.
Fantastic Elements: Explained above. A very well done post-cyberpunk world. Those of you who like military SF and hard SF will probably also enjoy the book’s hard edge. I think there is a strong measure of military-grittiness to the book, as well as a good focus on the science. (It includes an extensive bibliography.)
Discuss this review or Spin State in our forums.