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Ink and Steel: A Novel of the Promethean Age, by Elizabeth Bear, Roc, 2008, $14.
Hell and Earth: A Novel of the Promethean Age, by Elizabeth Bear, Roc, 2008, $14.
Watermind, by M. M. Buckner, Tor, 2008, $24.99.
WHEN I WAS brought on board at F&SF with explicit editorial instructions to "review lots and lots of hard sf," I felt like a dog who'd just been ordered to pee on lots and lots of fire hydrants.
Don't get me wrong: I'm no hard sf purist. I have more than a passing acquaintance with Jacques Derrida, Alice Munro and other unsavory characters from the world of Literature with a capital L. I greatly admire feminist sf writers like Ursula K. Le Guin and Suzy McKee Charnas. And, like every other sf writer who came of age in the early eighties, I caught the cyberpunk bug. (Cyberpunk was like disco back then: love it or hate it, you couldn't escape contagion.)
But my real allegiance, body and soul, is to classic hard sf. I have a Pavlovian response to books with space ships on their covers. There are Arthur C. Clarke stories that make me cry the way most sane people only cry when Bambi's mother gets shot. And if there is an end to the number of times I can happily reread Frederik Pohl's novels, I haven't gotten there yet.
So what on Earth am I doing reviewing a fantasy novel?
Well, it just so happens that I am secretly addicted to a very peculiar strain of fantasy. I call it hard fantasy, though my definition of "hard fantasy" is only partially coterminous with Michael Swanwick's. Swanwick defines hard fantasy as fantasy that "starts from zero" to create an entirely new imagined world,1 I simply see it as fantasy that puts worldbuilding front and center: fantasy that explores the inner clockworks of imaginary worlds the same way hard sf explores the mysteries of our own universe.
Basically, it's fantasy for the pocket protector set. Fantasy for those of us who are less interested in reading about swordslinging heroes battling trollspawn, and more interested in shotgun sequencing the trollspawn genome. It includes books like Sean Russell's alternate nineteenth-century River Into Darkness books and Susanna Clarke's brilliant Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. And it most definitely includes Elizabeth Bear's Elizabethan novels, Ink and Steel and Hell and Earth.
Bear's Elizabethan novels are published as a duology, but really they're just one big fat car-crushing monster-truck of a fantasy novel. The two books form part of Bear's wide-ranging Promethean series, but here Bear focuses on Elizabethan England—and in particular on the fortunes of an obscure young playwright named William Shakespeare.
When Shakespeare's friend Christopher Marlowe is murdered, Will must both investigate Marlowe's death and continue his work: the writing of plays powerful enough to repair the fraying magical fabric of Elizabeth's England. Bear weaves exhaustively researched literary and historical sources into an intricate and luxurious tapestry that draws on sources as wide-ranging as Marlowe's Faust, Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, and Spenser's Faerie Queene.
The best coordinate I can give to help you triangulate these novels is to compare them to the single book they most remind me of: Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. I think of Strange & Norrell as a fantasy novel for Trollope and Thackery fans. It demands readers who are on equally good terms with Frodo Baggins and Becky Sharp—and to those readers it offers rare pleasures indeed. Similarly, Bear's Elizabethan novels offer up their greatest pleasures to readers who are equally comfortable with The Mists of Avalon and the tragedies of Shakespeare. It wouldn't hurt to have read Spenser's Faerie Queene a few times either. And…well…I almost hesitate to mention it, but would it be too much to hope for a passing acquaintance with Paradise Lost?
No doubt about it. These are erudite books, for all the nonstop action and steamy sex scenes. They are also, at times, just plain confusing. Like many sf writers of the rising generation, Bear has been strongly influenced by John Le Carré. In most cases this is a good thing. When it works, a Le Carré-style plot sweeps you away on a cresting wave of betrayals and counter-betrayals. But when it doesn't work, it just rolls you over and spits you back out on the beach, bruised and confused. I would not be an honest reviewer if I didn't admit that I got spat out on the beach more than once, losing the thread of Bear's plot in a tangle of arcane conspiracy theories. Still, on the whole, I think alert readers will manage to ride the wave. And the ride is well worth the scrapes and bruises.
Bear's Elizabethan novels demand a lot from readers—perhaps more than most readers are willing to give. But for those who are up to the challenge, these are magnificent books: gracefully written, brilliantly plotted, meticulously researched. Bear takes on the daunting task of putting words into the mouths of playwrights like Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson, and William Shakespeare. In the hands of most writers this would result in an embarrassing pastiche. But Bear has crafted a vast, resonant, enchanted forest of a story, rife with black magic and blacker shadows, where no player is what he seems and the very air seems to shimmer with danger and foreboding. And, unlike lesser books that promise much and deliver little, this story gets better, richer, deeper, and sadder with every page you turn.
I don't review books unless I really, really like them. Frankly, too many good books come through my hands every month for me to waste your time (or mine) with hatchet jobs. That said, there are differences in degree. Sometimes a book comes through that is so exceptional I find myself struggling to set it apart—to get across to readers somehow that this book is really, truly special. M. M. Buckner's Watermind is one of these books. It is quite simply the most original, unusual, and exciting hard sf novel I've read in a long, long time.
In Buckner's just-around-the-corner America, the nation's simmering toxic waste dumps become the breeding ground for an emergent artificial intelligence that mingles cutting edge complexity theory with the drive-in movie swamp creatures of yesteryear. As the "watermind" flows down the Mississippi Delta toward New Orleans, tabloid reporters go wild, corporate executives scheme to deny responsibility, and the beleaguered Army Corps of Engineers struggles to protect the citizens of a city already battered by Katrina and subsequent disasters.
In MIT dropout, CJ Reilly, the watermind finds the closest thing to a guardian angel in a book that resolutely refuses to provide readers with a hero. Trauma has turned Reilly into an empty vessel: a brilliant but troubled young woman drifting through odd jobs and one night stands while she struggles to come to terms with her father's suicide. CJ Reilly is a disturbing character. In fact, she's one of the most convincingly rendered portraits our genre has ever produced of the tawdry blend of intellectual brilliance and emotional dysfunction, social idealism and personal scumbaggery, that characterizes many great physicists and mathematicians. Yet Buckner neither apologizes for CJ nor passes judgment on her. At times she even seems to hint that CJ's chaotic personal life is part and parcel of her voracious intellect, her unrelenting scientist's urge to know. I didn't always like CJ. But I believed in her. And I kept thinking about her—and her all-too-familiar real world counterparts—long after I turned the last page of the novel.
When the watermind emerges, CJ leaps into action with a vengeance, standing up for principle and doing what she "knows" is right. In other words, she constructs an airtight rationale for why "the right thing to do" is also the thing most likely to win her a Nobel Prize. Then she proceeds to make one idiotic decision after another: trusting people she shouldn't trust, taking risks no sane person would take, hurting the very people who least deserve it, and generally making a disastrous mess of things. And not a funny fictional mess that lets her fling off zippy one-liners as she saves the day. Nope. It's a real mess: one fully worthy of the tawdry, glorious, storm-battered city in which the ensuing disaster unfolds.
In Buckner's able hands, a premise that could have led to a straightforward fastball of a book twists and flutters and swerves into a devastating curve ball. The complex plot and shifting, overlapping cast of characters is handled so deftly that you consciously have to step back from the book even to notice how many balls Buckner is juggling. Buckner has something to say about complexity theory itself. And she says it not by saddling her characters with "As you know Bob" speeches, but by weaving the shifting, nonlinear, irreducibly complex quality of emergent intelligence into the very fabric of her story.
Indeed, this is a novel full of paradoxes. The most obvious paradox (and a measure of the novel's strength) is that it manages to be highly original without presenting a single, easily summarized, Big New Science Idea.
The best hard sf writers are anthropologists of science—and like anthropologists they can take one of two approaches to their material. Either they can seek out the new—the sf equivalent of that undiscovered stone age tribe in the heart of the Amazon. Or they can refine the genre's focus to produce a more nuanced, more incisive vision of cultures with which we're already familiar.
Of course, real anthropologists are fast running out of hitherto unknown stone age tribes. But the beauty of hard sf is that it's tied to science, which is constantly renewing itself, constantly creating new theories, new technologies, new visions of the world around us. Thus, hard sf becomes an unfurling spiral of interaction between writers who are busy hammering out the first rough take on new science ideas and writers who go back over already traveled territory, honing and refining the terms of debate so that we can grasp both old and new technologies with ever subtler instruments of observation. The first kind of hard sf writer scans the night skies, restlessly shifting the lens in search of new territory, while the second kind tinkers with the guts of the telescope itself, grinding the lens finer and smoother so that we can see our subject matter better. The life of our genre—its very heartbeat—is a conversation between these two kinds of writers, both of whom are needed in order to push the intellectual work of doing science fiction forward.
Buckner is the second kind of writer—and just about the best in the business today. There is no big, high-concept "new idea" in Watermind that you can put your finger on. It's not a book that makes life easy for back-cover copy hacks. It's hard to sum up in a single phrase exactly what it is that sets this book apart from the dozens of other recent sf books about emergent artificial intelligence. And yet, the whole picture is new. New like that first, awed glimpse at your own skin cells through a microscope. New like the charged, ionized light after a thunderstorm that makes a familiar landscape suddenly seem startling and otherworldly.
The core of Buckner's success lies in her ability to portray science as a process rather than a static set of ideas or technologies. This is the skill that all great sf writers possess. Great sf writers—and here I cannot help invoking Arthur C. Clarke's name once again—create a mythology of science. But it's not the paper cutout parody of "science saves the world for white men" 1950s sf movies. It's real mythology: a mythology in which the selfless quest to expand human knowledge of our universe becomes a higher, nobler version of the quest for glory that sent Ulysses off to Troy and Beowulf off in pursuit of Grendel.
Fine, go ahead and laugh at me. I can't stop you. But I believe in it. So does every hard sf writer worthy of the name. So—for all her flaws and foibles—does CJ Reilly. And so does M. M. Buckner.
Another paradox (and, in my opinion, another strength of the book) is that Watermind could legitimately be read as feminist sf. I almost hesitate to discuss this side of the book. Watermind is hard sf first and foremost, and according to the established wisdom of our genre the best way to promote great female hard sf writers is to downplay the "girl cooties" factor. Yet much of what makes Watermind so formidable is Buckner's creation of a startlingly new science fictional landscape—one that evokes feminist theory as powerfully as it evokes hard sf traditions:
Canal waters soaked the porous shoals of Devil's Swamp, fringing the flooded witch-hazel in rings of soapy lather. Ebb and flow, the turbid juice seeped upward through the osmotic mud and percolated among coiling tree roots. It welled among the sedges, then seeped back down again like a slow sexual exchange. In coitus with solid ground, the water slurped loam and decomposing leaves, crude oil and perchlorate. It drank ravenously of mercury and lead. It tasted promiscuously—eroding, leaching, dissolving, accreting.Buckner envisions the Mississippi Delta as a vast, contaminated womb in which our toxic waste is transformed into the new life forms that will potentially outcompete and replace us. No knowledgeable reader can miss the echoes of Kristeva's Dark Continent in such passages, yet Buckner weaves these images into the core structures of her story so seamlessly and subtly that one is tempted to throw around words like postfeminism and intersectionality.
But pinning labels on novels is a fool's game. The main point—the only point that matters—is that Buckner has constructed a story as multifaceted and elusive as the Mississippi itself. It's not just feminist sf. It's not just techno-thriller. It's not just hard sf. It's all of them. And it fully delivers in every subgenre on which it touches.
Naturally, there will be some hard sf fans who won't relish this book: those who still cling to the notion that "hard" sf and "feminist" sf are mutually exclusive categories; those who cannot commit emotionally to a book without a likable main character; and—more legitimately—hardcore geekerati who know their way around a nonlinear differential equation and are seriously allergic to handwaving of any kind.
Don't get me wrong on the handwaving: I am deeply unforgiving of any sf novel whose core premise is scientifically flawed. That's not the case here. Watermind's sins against the "playing with the net up" principle2 are venial, not mortal: a reasonably forgivable degree of handwaving committed in the context of a basically sound novel. Mostly this involves brushing lightly over concepts that can't really be explained without the kind of cumbersome prose that scares off non-sf geeks. Nonetheless, geek that I am, I did finish the book wishing I knew more about the specifics of the science behind the watermind.
Still, these are quibbles. Watermind is the real deal: a scintillating switch-hitter of a novel that fully delivers on all the competing promises of its ambitious opening pages. And it's yet another piece of evidence for the mounting case that Buckner is one of the best writers working in our genre today.
Now I'll bow out and let Buckner ring the changes for you. Here are the opening paragraphs of Watermind's prologue (and your full FDA-recommended dose of hard sf for the day). If this taste whets your appetite, go forth and find the rest of the book:
As the 21st Century dawned over western Canada, three grad students saw their weather experiment ruined when their expensive "mote" computers washed away in a storm. The students were devastated. Their elegant motes! Each tiny device represented an epiphany of microengineering—with waterproof sensors, memory, processors and radio transceiver—a complete weather station no larger than a diamond chip.1 See Swanwick's June 2004 Locus interview.
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