Angelmass, Timothy Zahn

Tor, 2001, 430 pages, C$32.95 hc, ISBN 0-312-87828-1

I suppose it’s an unfortunate coincidence that I ended up reading Angelmass at a time where I was busy thinking about the current state of SF.

What happened is that I was writing a paper on Terror in Hard-SF (yes, I’m that weird) when I noticed SF’s distinct lack of interest in the singularity, the irresistible acceleration of technological change and its impact on society. This ended up meshing well with John Clute’s concept of “First SF” and how he argues that most science-fiction nowadays has become a shared fantasy, based on outdated assumptions and shared clichés. He (and I, up to a certain point where I’m unable to articulate clearly) argues that in an increasingly Science-Fictional world, SF is increasingly looking backward, afraid of true change and what it may mean to us. It’s not a new notion (it’s been embraced by a few people, and even I have previously written about it other contexts), but it hit me again full-force in late September 2002.

Alas, I happened to be reading Angelmass at the time. Let me say outright that Angelmass is a lovely book, with undeniable qualities that I’ll describe in a moment. Don’t go around quoting this review (as if) like a pan of the book, because I actually liked quite a bit.

But sadly, Angelmass is yet another example of the type of current science-fiction that merely treads water in the river of change, not quite swimming backward, but not doing much in a progressive direction either.

Okay, a word about the plot: Angelmass is by and large the story of two people: The first, Jereko Kostas, is a young scientist drafted by his empire’s intelligence service to infiltrate a research facility in another solar system. The second is one “Chandris Lalasha”, a gifted young female con-artist with uncanny skills and a very good reason to run away from her previous residence. Both Jereko and Chandris eventually end up on Seraph, a planet with a unique form of government based on the use of “angels”-harnessed subatomic particles with the power to make everyone within their field of influence entirely truthful and honest. Each working from their end, they will eventually join forces and discover a rather unpleasant truth about the angels…

Angelmass is a perfect example of current commercial pure-SF; a decent read that is unarguably science-fiction and a worthwhile product by a real working professional. Timothy Zahn’s been in the business for a few years, and he knows how to deliver a polished product: Angelmass is progressively compelling and his prose delivers the story simply, with an adequate lack of panache. Special notice must be made of the characters, which are defined with an impressive amount of skill and sympathy. They are our gateway to the story, and they are indeed very good reasons to keep on reading. I particularly liked the portrait of the scientist-spy forced to keep on doing interesting research while simultaneously spying on his colleagues; Zahn’s portrait of scientific investigation is interesting enough, and entirely appropriate in a true science-fiction novel.

There’s not a lot to dislike about Angelmass, in fact. The beginning is a bit slow, and the ending sort of diffuses itself rather than keep building steadily toward the climax. (It’s a good ending, but the lead-up is weaker and longer than it warranted.) The conclusion sort of argues in favour of the bottled genie, which generally annoys me for a whole lot of reasons: How about a synthetic way to re-establish balance?

But in matters of making SF a newly-relevant genre for today’s world, this isn’t it. Angelmass isn’t meant to innovate or present a new vision of the future: It plays heavily on our pre-existing SF constructions: Planetary networks, galactic empires, space ships, etc… All very comfortable, all very classical. Nothing new, nothing big enough to stretch your mind. But maybe I can recommend Zahn’s novel as a solid SF adventure, with true SF content and plenty of good characters, if only for readers not as obsessed about a new mission for Science-Fiction as I was when I was reading Angelmass. Heck, give me a few more months and I might even rave about the book…

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