Tor, 1998, 468 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-812-52387-3
Years ago, in his influential essay Comme un roman, French writer Daniel Pennac outlined a series of unalienable “reader’s rights”, one of them being “the right not to finish a book”. I firmly believe in this particular freedom, even though I don’t usually take advantage of it. In my experience, there are times where a book can actually improve as it goes along. Though quite rare, I have too fond a memory of Walter Jon Williams’ Aristoi (difficult first fifty pages; wonderful rest of book) to quit SF books halfway through. I nearly gave up on Laura J. Mixon’s Proxies but decided to read a few more chapters, and if the end result isn’t up to Aristoi, I think it was good enough to make the first half worthwhile.
The initial difficulty with Proxies isn’t that it’s incomprehensible as much as it’s just not very interesting. Sometime before the end of the 21st century, humanity perfects a technology which allows operators to control other humanoid bodies across distances. Those proxies are perfect for work in dangerous environment: Space explorations, dangerous manual labour, military operations, etc. But the technology isn’t cheap nor easy to use, and so it hasn’t proved to be the end of menial labour. As you can expect, the gulf between rich and poor has widened even further. And as if that wasn’t enough, Earth’s environmental situation has degraded to the point where normal temperatures are equivalent to today’s worst heat waves.
But things are about to heat up even further as politics start messing with science and top-secret experiments. Before long, complex power struggles emerge, and they all seem to revolve around Carli D’Auber, a recent unemployed super-scientist who just happens to be the daughter of an influential politician.
There’s a lot to shrug about in the first half of Proxies, as this new world is chaotically introduced and the complex power politics of the various plots in motion are hesitantly explained. Mixon’s imagined future is a mixture of the new and the old, with familiar elements competing against more exciting ones. There’s a post-cyberpunk feel to it all that’s neither fresh nor inventive and as the pages are turned, it seems as if Proxies isn’t going anywhere.
But it start coming into focus half-way through. Suddenly, the issues are clearer, part of the background is explained, the characters truly come into their own (though some, like, “Dane Elisa Cae”, still end up feeling over-developed for their narrative importance) and the reading takes on a smoother quality.
The third fourth of Proxies is the kind of stuff we SF readers are looking for. Neat sequences, crisp writing, a dash of humour and some increasingly sympathetic characters. Our poor heroine is insulted, dismissed, battered, blackmailed and kidnapped. It may not be all that great for her, but it’s surely a lot more fun for us readers. Then there is the pleasant patina of “real-world” political sophistication peeking through; for all other flaws, Proxies ends up with an impressive amount of complexity that feels as if, yes, this is a work of true anticipatory science-fiction more than a cardboard future created for a story. Heaven knows that there are worse (and sillier) SF novels out there. If the first half could have been shortened and cleaned up a little bit, maybe Proxies could have been a novel worth commending without reservations. As it is, though, there’s a lot to slog through in order to get to the good parts.
Then there’s the ending; Though not a bad ending by most sense of the term, Mixon so diffuses the climactic elements of her conclusion (by discarding plot threads hastily, by placing the Big Decisions in off-stage minds, by having characters abandon their goals) that the pay-off of the book is similarly diluted. The first half of the book feels overlong and indulgent and so does the conclusion. Some more judicious editing could have improved the impact of the whole thing, along with a hyped-up pacing where all the elements of the conclusion are properly done justice.
As it currently stands, there’s a lot to like about Proxies, but it’s a shame that the readers have to work so hard to get to them. I’m curious enough to go read Mixon’s other novels, but anyone who wants to tackle Proxies may want to keep in mind another item on Pennac’s bill of “readers’ right”: “The right to skim”.