Crystal Rain, Tobias Buckell

Tor, 2006, 351 pages, C$33.95 hc, ISBN 0-765-31227-1

So this is the twenty-first century. Doesn’t feel much different from the last one so far, doesn’t it? Still no giant robots, lunar bases or flying cars. But sometimes, things change profoundly even when they don’t seem to. Attitudes evolve. New ideas come in. It may be more important to shift our understanding of the world as it exist than try to change it radically. As a genre, Science Fiction is no exception. While it too is pushing forward, it’s also changing from within, opening up to cultural backgrounds other than plain old white boring Anglo-Saxon roots. Look carefully, and you can see the first young wolves of twenty-first-century Science Fiction, and they’re thinking differently even when they’re following the good old recipes.

Tobias Buckell, for instance, doesn’t stretch any definition of Science Fiction with his first novel Crystal Rain. A good old rollicking adventure across a primitive landscape littered with relics of a high-tech past, Crystal Rain is not particularly original or innovative. But it it succeeds at what it attempts and benefits from Buckell’s atypical background.

It all takes place on a planet which, as far as we know in this first volume, is inhabited by two very different civilizations: The dominant Azteca and isolated Nanagada. As the story begins, the Azteca (who, as the name suggests, have pretty much adopted everything from the Aztecs… including ritual sacrifice) launch an invasion against Nanagada’s peaceful peninsula. They’ve got number and ruthlessness on their side, but there’s more to Nanagada than a small militia and a capital at the end of the railways: There’s John deBrun, our protagonist, a man who has managed to rebuild his life after being found at sea without memories. There’s a lot more to him than the simple existence he lives, and events will soon push him from one discovery to another.

An adventure story in a somewhat pulpish tradition (though with far superior prose), Crystal Rain reads like a bucket of fun. The characters are well-drawn, their adventures rarely let up and there’s a satisfying progression to our understanding of the world they live in. The cover jacket illustration has a man with a hook and a gun, parrots, airships and plenty of colour: the novel inside isn’t much different. The cultural nature of the feud between Nanagada (heavily based on Caribbean culture) and the merciless Azteca is a welcome change of pace that does much to distinguish this novel from other planetary romances. Despite a few beginner’s missteps (such as the explanatory conversation in Chapter Two), Buckell’s writing is crisp and self-assured: Don’t be surprised to wrap up this novel in a single afternoon. One fair warning: Buckell’s characters often speak using broken syntax and while the effect is a pleasant reminder of Caribbean accents, it may be distracting to some.

Unlike superficially similar novels like Karl Schroeder’s Ventus, Crystal Rain has no aspirations at pushing the SF envelope: It delivers the goods, promises more for the sequel and then stops while it’s still ahead of the game. I’m not too fond of series fiction, but don’t be worried by this volume: There’s a satisfying end to the story in this book even as some of the implications of the background suggest a much larger canvas for latter volumes. The Aztecan gods, for instance, are very real and very inhuman: Nanagada’s centuries-long isolation portends nothing good for the rest of the human race. We’ll probably learn more about it in the sequel. (And hopefully make sense of some details that look like contrivances: The focus of this novel is so tightly focused on Nanagata that it often feels like a series of arbitrary authorial decisions: “See, there’s a chain of Wicked High Mountain here… from one sea to another. Yup. Aztecas had to dig through for a hundred years. Couldn’t go above or beside it. Sea-to-sea mountains. Wicked High Mountains.” Best not to scratch the background too deeply here: just enjoy the adventure.)

But all told, this is an praiseworthy take on the good old Science Fiction adventure genre, with enough action and gadgets to make this a fun read. It doesn’t do anything new, but it does so well, and thanks to Buckell’s own cultural heritage, provides a setting with a welcome difference from what we’re used to. Others may push back the conceptual limits of SF, but Buckell is changing it from within —making it a more diverse, more accessible, more enjoyable genre. That’s not to dismiss lightly.

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