Tag Archives: Elizabeth Bear

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.

The Jenny Casey Trilogy, Elizabeth Bear

Bantam Spectra, 2005, ??? pages, C$??.?? mmpb, ISBN Various

Hammered, Bantam Spectra, 2005, 324 pages, C$10.99 pb, ISBN 0-553-58750-1
Scardown, Bantam Spectra, 2005, 368 pages, C$10.99 pb, ISBN 0-553-58751-X
Worldwired, Bantam Spectra, 2005, 398 pages, C$10.99 pb, ISBN 0-553-58749-8

In his introduction to his 1995 critical anthology Look at the Evidence, John Clute calls for “excessive candour” in criticizing science-fiction. He argues that even if the SF&F field is too small for the reviewers to avoid being in friendly contact with the authors, reviewers have to stay honest and avoid sugar-coating their judgement: anything else would doom the field to a counter-productive spiral of self-congratulations.

Clute first came up with the idea of excessive candour in the late-eighties, at a time when SF criticism was -despite the presence of fanzines- a far more exclusive club than it is today. Things have changed in nearly twenty years: now, it just takes a LiveJournal account to be able to write reviews that (thanks to search engines and ego-surfing) are almost certain to be read by the authors. More significantly, it also allows writers (once remote and distantly glimpsed at conventions, if at all) to appear far more accessible to readers: It’s almost too easy, these days, to read the blog of an author on a daily basis, see them struggle through life like everyone else, fool yourself that you know the person and let that perception colour the reading of a finished work.

It’s hard to avoid mulling over such issues when considering Elizabeth Bear’s Jenny Casey Trilogy. Published in 2005, the trilogy marks Bear’s smashing book-length entrance in the SF&F field after a string of successful short stories. On-line, it’s hard to avoid Bear’s web site, or her frequently-updated blog. Its focus on the craft of fiction writing makes it an essential read for the entire SF&F community, and this high profile has paid dividends in terms of name recognition: Bear earned a well-deserved John W. Cambell Award for best new writer in 2005 and the 2006 Locus Award for Best First Novel for the Jenny Casey trilogy.

This makes it hard to pick up the Jessy Casey trilogy as “just another SF trilogy from a new author”. It makes it even harder to jot down a not-entirely-positive review. With time, the probability of her reading these words approaches certainty… and she’s known for blogging about reviews of her books.

[December 2006: A bit later than I thought, the review makes it to Bear’s blog on December 4th: “Christian Sauve mostly worrying about whether I’m going to find the review or not. …there’s some shallow sort of irony there, I guess. Curse you, Google Alerts!” Hee, irony.]

And that, in a specific example, is why Excessive Candour is more important now than it has ever been. It take a particular type of deliberation to review in a panopticon. It’s easier to be all sugar and honey when They’re Watching. It’s even easier to say nothing at all if something doesn’t work.

So: The Jenny Casey Trilogy is interesting, but not without its problems.

At first glance, from the first volume’s back cover, it just sounds like another half-baked cyberpunk derivative, ten years too late and a few ideas short : As a “former Canadian special forces warrior” brought back from a self-imposed exile through coercion and the promise of better cybernetic implants, Jenny Casey doesn’t look very different from many other SF heroines. The surface similitudes with Kristine Smith’s “Jani Killian” series (which features a similar cybernetically-enhanced heroine) are further highlighted by the same cover illustration boot-and-weapon motif.

But look closer: Beyond the initial inner-city setting, there’s a lot more at work here. Jenny herself, as an embittered veteran who has seen everything, isn’t quite the poster girl for hip female action heroines. The plot itself soon moves away from the cyberpunk or military-SF aspects some readers may have expected. By the time the trilogy reaches its conclusion, the overall feel is one of a general-interest SF novel that can’t be fitted in a pre-existing template. Unfortunately, these shifting goalposts can often make entire swaths of the story feel like sideshows. I first intended to review the books separately, but held off after feeling that the first volume was just revving up to other things. The irony is that after reading the entire trilogy, I still feel much the same way: The first volume contains a lot of material that isn’t strictly necessary and could have been axed by a more ruthless editor. Most of the Hartford scenes after Jenny has left the city are like that: intriguing at first, but increasingly irrelevant as the story moves on. The impression persists throughout the trilogy. A lot of material initially seems promising, but doesn’t truly pay off. (Then again, I usually feel that most trilogies can be distilled to single 500-page books, and this one is no exception.)

This lack of speed and focus does have advantages, though: It allows Bear to spend more time on characterization, and that’s where readers of the trilogy will find much to like. If the trilogy escapes the confines of its first impressions, it’s partly because Bear spends so much energy defining and developing her characters. She pays attention to emotional resonance with a grace that lacks from the work of many current SF writers, reaching for the throat of her audience with an unnerving assurance. Volume Two ends on an audacious tragedy that many writers would have tried to soften… but not here. Throughout all three volumes, Bear allows us to get into the mind of her characters like few other genre writers are able to sustain. I was seldom bored.

But not being bored isn’t always a mark of complete satisfaction. Unanswered background questions and constant annoyances can be very effective in keeping my interest up.

For instance, the trilogy takes place in a future where Canada has somehow emerged as the balancing superpower to China. Given how Canadians always crave attention from their American cousins, this is exactly the type of detail to make me purr and roll around with the book —after checking twice that the author is not, in fact, Canadian. (Though we may grant her honorary citizenship if she keeps it up.)

Alas, some of those same likable background details don’t make much sense. I kept waiting for an explanation why the United States weren’t the dominant power around, and got nothing much beyond the usual “religious right rising, urban fighting, etc” scenario. Worse; third-volume exposition drives home the fact that even in 2063, Canada’s population is still around thirty million people while the US weighs in at about 250 million: I have a hard, hard time imagining how Canada could develop as a major superpower (much less take the US’s place) with that population differential. Vague hand-waving about massive immigration from Europe and South-Asian support for Canada doesn’t cut it, nor does it explain why the US hasn’t simply taken over its neighbour in stark desperation. Oh well; at least “superpower Canada” has a nice ring to it.

But there’s something else. Something that will likely bother only a few dozen reade
rs over the trilogy’s commercial life-time: The French. Not Oh-no-French-I-can’t-understand-it, but Oh-no-French-I-can-understand-it-and-it’s-wrong. Jenny, after all, grew up in Montréal and is supposed to be a fluent Francophone. Alas, her French is nothing like what a francophone may say. While bad enough in the expletives (“Thank God”, for instance, is translated as the formal “merci à dieu” whereas “dieu merci” is -by far- the preferred form in colloquial French-Canadian. “Putain de marde” is a weird mid-Atlantic mash-up that just looks weird. And just try to use “trou de coul” [sic] on a French Canadian for guaranteed hilarity.), the trilogy’s “French” is riddled with elementary mistakes throughout, which severely affects the flow of the text. The climax of that problem is reached late in the first volume, where a tender lovemaking scene turns hilarious thanks to the ungrammatical French spoken by the characters in the heat of passion: It certainly had an impact on me, but not -I guess- the one that Bear intended. Thankfully, the other two volumes ease up on the quantity of French… though its quality doesn’t improve much.

But I’m not really holding the poor French against Bear for two reasons.

First, nearly every unilingual writer gets it wrong. From Robert Ludlum (The Bourne Identity) to Dan Brown (Digital Fortress) to Robert J. Sawyer (Frameshift), every character speaking French in English-language fiction is addled with bad grammar, inappropriate use of the language and expressions that only make sense if you back-translate them into English. Writers without frequent bilingual interactions seldom have the sense of when it’s appropriate to switch back and both between languages, let alone master the finer point of grammar. Bear is no exception, and we can hardly blame her for something that happens all the time.

But as a French-Canadian, I also have to admit that there’s some cachet in seeing one’s mother tongue mangled by Les Anglais once again: It’s one thing to be a plucky minority on a continent dominated by English, it would be completely disheartening to find out that French can be picked up just like that (snaps fingers) by just about anyone. Ah, the self-esteem of obscurity…

Chances are that the vast majority of the trilogy’s readers won’t even mind: They’ll simply see French words and be charmed by this particular bit of exoticism. It’s those few dozen francophone readers who will spend a good part of the trilogy blinking, sighing and back-translating. I assume that part of the effect is intentional, to make the passages more accessible to English-language readers. On the other hand, I can assure Bear that “Enfant de chienne” is the right translation for “son of a bitch” on this side of the Atlantic.

But this kvetching aside, I remain reasonably happy with the trilogy. There’s a decent plot, fabulous characters (Elspeth rocks) and a number of other nice touches. (Bear uses Richard Feynman as the basis for her AI character, which just kept me grinning through the entire trilogy.) It may not be cutting-edge SF in concept, but the English-language prose is a bit better than the current standards of the genre. If nothing else, it should find a decent cross-over audience as entry-level SF: The usual props of the genre are nearly all in there, remixed to the author’s specifications but not out of reach for casual readers. As a first novel, the Jenny Casey trilogy is an auspicious debut for an author who will go on to do wonderful things. I may not be convinced enough to overcome my usual genre preferences and try Bear’s fantasy, but I’ll pick up her next SF book Carnival.