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?)