Tag Archives: Chris Moriarty

Spin Control, Chris Moriarty

Bantam Spectra, 2006, 456 pages, C$16.00 tpb, ISBN 0-553-38214-4

Writing a review can be a declaration of victory over the work being discussed. It’s a way to come to a conclusion, to shape a final opinion. Whether it’s a rave or a rant, a review is a way of declaring to the world –There it is, I have figured out what this is all about, and how it relates to me. Case closed. Next.

And that makes Spin Control all that harder to review. For despite this reviewer’s best intentions, Chris Moriarty’s sophomore effort seems to fall into the morass of mid-list SF novels, solid enough to deserve upper-tier publishing but not sufficiently memorable to float above the rest of its contemporaries. Worse yet: Spin Control isn’t much better (or worse) than Moriarty’s previous Spin State, which inspired similar feelings of ambivalence.

Part of the blah can be tracked to the quasi hum-drum nature of the books’ premise. Spin State recast issues about coal mining in outer space, whereas Spin Control rehashes the same Israel/Palestine conflict three hundred years in the future, without much by way of change. While not completely implausible by middle-eastern standards where every ideological nut seems to have thousand-year-old grievances, the sheer pedestrian nature of the book’s main axis of conflict sucks interest out of the remainder of the book. Moriarty brings little that’s new or original to this issue (though her description of “Enders” is a nice SF nod) and the feeling is a lot like being spoon-fed bitter cough medicine: While it may be good for me, it’s hardly any fun.

This isn’t helped by the glacier-fast pacing of the book, which stretches in time even as the plot demands a faster pace. That problem also plagued Spin State, but the difference between ideal and actual pacing seems even more pronounced here given this sequel’s heightened intent as a thriller. Spin Control, at nearly five hundred pages of dense typography, overstays its welcome by at least a hundred pages.

Perhaps the best thing about the novel is how it really attempts to create a hybrid out of espionage thrillers and Science Fiction. Many, many, many recent authors have trodden down this path lately, from Richard Morgan to Charles Stross, but Moriarty is less focused on gadgets and more on the toll that official secrets can take on individual lives. This is where the grim ponderousness of the novel pays off, heightening the novel’s credibility as an espionage thriller in the vein of classic John Le Carré: how spying isn’t about the fancy gadgets and the high stakes, but about barren lives, the absence of certitude and the brutality of the business. Moriarty may crank up the tension for too long, but when the spring finally unwinds in the last few pages, the results leave almost no one unscathed.

Moriarty generally does better when it comes to the SF content of her story: The science is exact, the references are interesting, and the purer SF moments are handled with professionalism. It still could have been cut and edited down to a smoother-flowing rhythm, but hard-SF readers will not be disappointed by Moriarty’s grasp of science and the speculations she spins off her contemporary sources. (A reference bibliography is included.)

But trying to pin down Spin Control in a coherent “recommended/not recommended” verdict is a frustrating exercise: There are enough better books out there covering roughly the same terrain that it would take a long time for any reader to make it down to Spin Control before next year’s crop. On the other hand, Spin Control is a professional work of fairly good science-fiction, mature and polished enough to appear in a big publisher’s lineup without surprise. I wish Moriarty would strip down her prose and tackles issues that can’t be heard in contemporary news bulletins, but really, I just want to see her next novel.

Spin State, Chris Moriarty

Bantam Spectra, 2003, 485 pages, C$17.95 tpb, ISBN 0-553-38213-6

For me, one of Science Fiction’s more endearing qualities is its capacity to imagine neat futures where most of today’s less interesting problems are neatly solved away. Distances are erased, material needs are satisfied and reason takes over as a dominant conflict-solving mechanism. Humans are, at last, left to work on the most interesting problems –and half the fun is in figuring out which ones those can be.

Such an interesting future is not in the cards for the protagonists of Chris Moriarty’s Spin State, a 2003 Philip K. Dick award-nominated first novel by a brand-new author who’s also seriously vying for the 2004 Campbell award. Once again, scarcity rears its ugly head, and millions suffer for lack of something: “Coal. Oil. Uranium. Water. This is not the first time humanity has depended on a nonrenewable resource.” [P.153] In this case, the nonrenewable resource is Bose-Einstein condensates, a substance that allows faster-than-light communication and teleportation. There’s one catch, though: Bose-Einstein condensates doesn’t occur in nature save from inside a coal mine on a backwater world called Compson’s World.

As luck has it, that’s where protagonist Catherine Li comes from. But despite her best efforts at staying away, a series of unfortunate events lead her back home as the lead investigator in the mysterious death of a top-ranking scientist. As you can expect, complications rapidly accumulate: The scientist shares the same DNA as the protagonist, Compson’s World is on the edge of rebellion and Bose-Einstein condensates are a major source of friction between the UN-led Earth and the breakaway Syndicates. As is the norm with SF thrillers, the murder case quickly morphs into a nexus of major forces. Throw in a few AIs, genetic discrimination, twisted allegiances and long-buried secrets and it will take more than enhanced reflexes and superior combat abilities for Li to get out of the situation relatively intact.

In some ways, Spin State is a solid SF thriller in the noirish vein. In others, it’s an attempt to integrate a few good ideas. It’s a typical first novel, filled with promises and yet not completely successful.

There’s not a lot that’s wrong with the novel, mind you: A lot of the initial ideas are intriguing and introduced with skill. Li is adequately twisted: as a super-agent for the UN, she’s not terribly beautiful, remains wracked with neuroses, can’t trust a soul and has a quasi-omnipotent (yet completely untrustworthy) AI as a best friend. Far from the slick superhero of so much SF, Catherine Li works quite well as a real protagonist.

But I kept waiting for Spin State to become more than something average, and that never happened. It’s far too long, for one thing: Cut at least a hundred pages of the interminable investigation (which doesn’t really pay off when the real story starts moving) and we’ll start talking again. Other annoyances are there; the contrived excuse to set a Science Fiction novel in a coal mine, coupled with unconvincing “evil leper mutant” discrimination yadda-yadda. Let’s move on, shall we? One of the book’s last big revelations is blindingly obvious hundreds of pages before, as soon as coral is mentioned. Though the book flaunts itself as hard-SF and includes pages of bibliographical references on quantum physics, not a lot of explicit science makes its way in the novel itself.

(It doesn’t help that, by sheer coincidence, Spin State follows on the heels of Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon, a superior novel that just happens to touch upon some of the same subjects in a far more energetic fashion.)

All told, it’s hard to read the novel with anything approaching enthusiasm. I trudged on out of duty and obligation, awaiting the magic spark that would ignite everything. Oh, I don’t begrudge the money I spent on the novel, or the time it took me to read it… but it’s not making me overly anxious to rush out and get Moriarty’s next book. One thing that SF can’t solve is scarcity of time and money… especially when it comes to reading more SF, some unpleasant choices must be made.

(One final note; I’m a bit dismayed at the carefully gender-neutral jacket blurb and author biography. Yes, a trip to Chris Moriarty’s official web site will reveal Moriarty’s gender. But surely we know better than to assume that hard-SF readers will avoid works by a woman writer? Why the deception?)