Carnival, Elizabeth Bear

Bantam Spectra, 2006, 392 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-553-58904-0

Even when authors make a spectacular entrance, it can take a while before they deliver books that can truly be called their own. For every William Gibson forever cursed with a first novel that can’t be topped there’s a Greg Bear whose breakthrough novel comes years after their debut. Even the most promising writers can take a while before shaking off their inspirations and set out in a territory of their own creation.

It’s possible to say plenty of good things about Elizabeth Bear’s debut SF trilogy, but “original” would be stretching it: While competently imagined and vividly written, Hammered , Scardown and Worldwired often felt like good-quality remixes of ideas, genres and situations already familiar to genre readers. Good reading, but sometimes indistinguishable from so many other mid-list SF novels. Middle-of-the-pack material, with the added advantage of excellent characterization.

Carnival is something else. Something better. It manages to find a place in SF tradition and improve on it.

It finds a place in Science Fiction’s stream of feminist writing, though as a further argument rather than an imitation. As our two protagonists, agents for an unwholesome human hegemony, step on the planet of New Amazonia, we’re led to contemplate what could have very well been a creation of past feminist writers: a strong matriarchy in which weapons are practically mandatory and where males are either neutered or put down. But if you think Carnival is just going to be a tour of a strange new society, think again: There’s a strong thriller engine at the core of this novel, and it never stops purring. Our two protagonists have agendas that don’t necessarily mesh together, to say nothing of a thorny personal conflict between them. As if that wasn’t enough, New Amazonia thankfully isn’t a monolithic utopia where everything is aligned perfectly: factions-within-factions are at play to radically change the nature of its government, even as there may be an extra surprise or two buried in the planet’s alien ruins…

The plotting gets complex at times, but Bear’s non-nonsense style does wonders at drawing the readers in, then keeping everything interesting even as the complexity of the political intrigue increases. Strong personal conflicts mesh with overarching social issues to produce not only a vigorous thriller, but a Science Fiction genre novel that acknowledges its predecessors while engaging into a sustained argument with them. Carnival works as an extension to the feminist utopia genre, while brining a degree of political complexity that allows us to look at utopian assumptions with a new light. You can almost hear Bear adding to the genre discourse with a well-placed “But it’s not so simple!”

There are a number of good SF ideas thrown into the mix too: A radical solution to environmental problems; fascinating character names; matter-of-fact use of utility fogs; heavy-duty plague engineering; and so on. The alien presence on top of all that may be a bit too much, but it plays into the complexity of the story, and places the characters in difficult choices… which seems to be what Bear’s fiction is all about.

All in all, it adds up to a very satisfying novel; either Bear is breaking through to a superior level, or my brain is calibrating itself to what she’s doing. Either way, I’m buying a copy of her upcoming Undertow as soon as it comes out.

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