I feel conflicted about rating this on Goodreads. I’d like to make it 3.5 – I’m such a sucker for half marks; I guess I tend towards ambivalence? I dunno…
(see what I did there?)
The set-up is great, as I’ve come to expect from a Scott novel. In fact after I read the first few pages I sighed with happiness and wondered why it took me so long to get around to reading this – it’s been on my shelf for ages – since the writing is lovely and captivating and immediately immersive. So that’s a wonderful thing and the prose itself stays very readable. The plot, though… it feels like a very long build up to a very abrupt and somewhat unsatisfying conclusion. I was surprised, as I read, that there were increasingly few pages left to go and no sign of clima – oh, there it went! Blink and you just about miss it. It felt like Scott either got bored by the story and/or characters (I’m going with the latter), and just wanted out, or she’d been given a timeframe that meant she had to rush the conclusion. Perhaps that’s a disservice and she always intended it to work that way, but it didn’t work for me.
Anyway: the story has two different plots that end up entangled. In one, Ista lives on a station owned and run by the Night Sky Mine Company, and she’s learning to be a hypothecary – someone who deals with what we would call the virtual world. There are safe nets, controlled by companies and governments, and then there are the wildnets – where anything might develop. Programs are flora – basically immobile – or fauna; Scott has developed an awesome nomenclature that give teasing hints as to characteristics of these programs (chogets and hug-me-tights and walaroo…). That was the aspect that felt really familiar from other Scott novels and that playfulness is something I really enjoyed.
The second plot involves Justin and Tarasov, men of very different backgrounds trying to make their relationship work dirt-side. Tarasov works in policing and they end up getting involved in an investigation that leads them to the Night Sky Mine system, and meeting up with Ista, and discovering that they all have some common interests that they want investigated.
The virtual world aspect is intriguing; there are hints at how it developed and got away from strict human control, but nothing too definite. The other world-building aspect that is intriguing is how Scott imagines human society working; this is no utopia, although it’s not quite a dystopia either (so quite realistic then). Humanity, at least within the Federation systems, are born into quite distinct castes – Union, Management, Transport, probably a few others – and there are definite resentments towards the different groups; Union always feels hard done by and that they are always the bottom of the pile. Friendships across castes are difficult, and love even more so. And then Scott adds another group, which I think is absolutely true to human nature: the Travellers. People who reject the idea of being tied to a caste and a certain job and a certain place. The most extreme Travellers (the Orthodox) take a spiritual view of their place in society, while Reformed Travellers are in it for the movement and lack of stricture. I could definitely read more stories set in this world, exploring how the different groups interact.
In the end I certainly don’t regret reading the book. I am glad that it wasn’t the first of Scott’s books I read, because I probably wouldn’t have gone on to read others – and then I would have missed out on Trouble and Her Friends which is definitely one of my very favourite cyberpunk stories.
I missed a first-in-the-series, here, which is a bit frustrating; I’m usually pretty good about not doing that. Anyway, if it’s going to bug you like it annoys me, go read Dreamships first. This one will wait.
Scott likes tackling hard topics, and here she’s asking – when does intelligence become intelligence? When can, in crude terms, a computer be regarded as a being in its own right? Does there have to be a deliberate effort on the part of humans for it to happen, or could it develop accidentally? And when we finally find that silicone intelligence shares the same space as us… what will be our reaction? Because we have such a good track record of dealing with humans with different perspectives from our own, let alone an entirely different type of intelligence. Scott presents some intriguing suggestions to these questions – and a few answers, but nothing completely definitive. It’s nicely tantalising, in a lot of ways.
I generally love Scott’s worlds, and this is no different. Humanity has spread to several planets; this story is set on Persephone. For all that there’s some seriously upgraded tech, and that it’s set an unknown distance into the future, it still feels recognisably human. Like, after initial freak-out-edness, it seems like I could probably live on Persephone. This is probably helped by the fact that the story revolves around people whose own lives revolve around that rather ubiquitous human characteristic, a love of music. Initial events are spurred on by the death of much-loved music star, and one of the main characters has a souped-up illusions show at one of the ‘Empires’ – which I think are basically futuristic theatres, catering to a variety of entertainments, from rock music to vaudeville (or their futuristic equivalents). I love this idea that the human desire to be entertained, on the one hand, and the equally pressing desire to express oneself in public somehow, will continue into the future – it’s something that doesn’t get enough airplay in SF I think.
Another aspect of the world-building that I really appreciated is that it’s clearly not a monoculture. I think this is the one main area where not having read Dreamships was a problem (aside from a couple of plot points that I managed to catch up on); the use of ‘coolie’ and ‘yanqui’ and other terms clearly referring to ethnic background didn’t always make sense to me – or, where I could but out the basic meaning (like with those two), it sometimes took me a while to figure out all the subtleties, like whose allegiances lay where and who felt which grievances. Nonetheless – this is a future that is not overwhelmingly white, where cultures have continued to develop and take on bits and pieces of older traditions and moosh them together, and where people can live on the same planet and not be identical. Also, where a common expletive is “Elvis Christ”.
The plot? Assassinations, destruction of property, intrigue, romance – all revolving around that idea of artificial intelligence, how it might come about, what should be done about it if it does, whether machines taking over from humanity in any area is a good thing, and all of those good things.
Scott writes beautifully. She switches between characters effortlessly and gives each a distinct voice. She matches a great plot with hard questions and does wonderful service to both. It’s not quite as cyberpunk as, say, Trouble and Her Friends, but it’s wonderful science fiction.
Cyberpunk. I loves it. This is not one of the best, but it’s definitely an interesting idea: someone has a new revelation from God, and recruits followers; for various reasons they leave for a new world, but this is complicated by said revelation, so original dude has a scan done of his brain and this scan lives on as a computer programme to keep giving visions and explaining the revelation. Et viola: deus ex machina where you take an I-don’t-understand-Latin stance; a very literal ghost in the machine. Now add someone who wants a copy for themselves, but that would be illegal, and… here we are.
I do not understand the title.
The plot: is generally straightforward. The POV jumps around a bit, but not confusingly. There are a few twists in the tale, generally related to character revelations, and the conclusion was pleasingly both appropriate and not completely neat. It’s closer to a heist story than a quest, in the way the Object is sought after; the vaguely criminal, or at least not-completely-above-board, elements contribute to this feel. One of the problems for me is that there are some tantalising little side stories… but they’re only hinted at, never given conclusion or even fleshed out very much. And this was annoying mostly because some of them appear, at the start, as if they are going to become very important. But they don’t.
The characters: a good variety. (Hey, I think it passes the Bechdel Test! Woot!) There’s the kinda-cops on Eden, who each have troubled/secretive backgrounds but work well together (that makes it sound like a buddy-cop movie; it’s really not); a DaSilva (cloned bodyguard) and her employer; and an IT/weather tech on Eden who’s really not sure she wants to be there anymore. The POV switches between one of the cops and the IT woman, mostly, which works well. None of the characters are especially fleshed out – there’s some background here and there, but not a whole lot about motivation or interactions beyond the plot – and now that I think about it, I didn’t actually care much about any of the characters themselves.
All of this makes it sound like this is a novel not worth bothering with, but there are definitely some really great aspects – I did finish it, after all. If you’re not in to cyberpunk then it isn’t for you, but I really enjoyed the bits ‘online’, so to speak, with one of the characters stuck there and having to deal with their predicament – including hostile programmes and the possibility of being ripped out of the virtual world, with attendant physical ramifications. I also enjoyed much of the characters’ interactions, and the plot itself: it’s fast-paced, easy to read, and enjoyable. The world building isn’t wildly exciting or innovative, but some of the ideas that Scott brings out certainly are. There’s only a passing reference, but the issue of clones is fascinating, especially when they know what they are; she’s done interesting things imagining how the law might treat them. The question of FTL travel is barely touched on, but again is really interesting: Scott allows it, but with serious physical and mental consequences if you do it too many times. I would read a whole book that set out to explore that idea.
Long story short: I didn’t love it, but it doesn’t put me off other Scott novels (which is good, because I have at least one more already on the shelf…).
So… I’ve been meaning to write this review since August, when I read it. I’ve therefore managed to get to it before a year is out, if only just. Which is good. But the reason it’s taken me so long is because there are so many things I wanted to say! … and of course I’ve forgotten most of them. Because that’s the way these things work. I did make a little list of notes as I went, so this is going to be a somewhat disjointed review as I write those notes and try to remember what I meant by them. Bear with me?
Firstly, this is a really really great book. Seriously. I went and bought two or three more Scott books pretty much immediately (the fact I haven’t managed to read them yet says nothing about Scott and everything about my teetering TBR pile). It has plot, it has characters, it has a brainworm… for me, this is like the pinnacle of cyberpunk. This is what it should do. The plot has action and intrigue and nice twisty bits; I quite enjoyed the description of being on the brainworm and participating in the net. The characters are nicely varied, and Trouble herself is complex and sympathetic and compelling. The blurb makes it sound like a techno-western (Trouble as “the fastest gun on the electronic frontier”) and while I’m not entirely sure it works, I think I can see where it’s going.
As I was reading, I had this really awesome revelation about how it connects being a cracker to gender, and how old-school crackers don’t like the idea of the brainworm because it allows bodily experience within (what is effectively) virtual reality or the internet. And I thought – hey, woman dealing with physicality, which men so often don’t do! … yeh, turns out this was by no means something that I noticed all on my own, but something that was in my head because Helen Merrick had pointed it out in The Secret Feminist Cabal… which is the main reason why I wanted to read Trouble in the first place. Oh, so meta. And so dumb.
Anyway, for a book published in 1994 it’s a bit depressing that, in this indeterminate time in the future, women and homosexuals are not still equal. Scott also says some interesting things about inequality and the willingness or desire to have the physical experience: “it was almost always the underclasses, the women, the people of colour, the gay people, the ones who were already stigmatised as being vulnerable, available, trapped by the body, who took the risk of the wire” (p128-9).
There’s also a pessimism in Scott’s thoughts on how society will view the net: with suspicion, is the answer. She imagines fairly rigorous policing of it, both externally and internally (maybe because of that same notion of the ‘wrong’ people hanging out there?); the net is scary, in need of tight controls – slowed down, checked thoroughly – so that mainstream upright society isn’t threatened.
It’s awesome. Cyberpunk and gender stuff and a ripping story. Awesome mix.
You can buy Trouble and her Friends at Fishpond.