Bantam Spectra Science Fiction, 2003
Review score: **** out of *****
I wish that I had the time to write more book reviews for for bearcave.com. I'm a compulsive purchaser of books and I read constantly. There never seems to be enough time and the mental energy to write book reviews, so I write reviews of many fewer books than I actually read.
I've been meaning to write a review of William Gibson's book Neuromancer, since bearcave.com first went on-line. What can I say? I'm a William Gibson fan boy. I've read all of Gibson's books (I have written a review of his recent book Pattern Recognition). Of all of Gibson's books, Neuromancer is my favorite. I even own a signed rare hardcover edition of Neuromancer (the Phantasia Press edition, not the even rarer Gollancz edition). Oddly, the regard I hold Neuromancer in has intimidiated me and kept me from writing a review of the book.
A number of fine science fiction writers have appeared since Gibson published Neuromancer. Vernor Vinge (True Names and Fire in the Sky), Neal Stephenson (Snow Crash and Diamond Age) and Dan Simmons (Hyperion and its sequels). In the last few years I find that most of the science fiction writers I've been reading are from Britian. These include Iain Banks, Alastair Reynolds, Ken MacLeod (Ken MacLeod's blog), Charles Stross, Paul McAuley, Neal Asher and Richard K. Morgan.
From Canada there is also Peter Watts, who writes dark, hard science fiction influenced by his postdoctoral background in biology and marine biology. One of the few US science fiction writers I've read recently (and greatly enjoyed) is Chris Moriarty, the author of Spin State.
There are some science fiction novels, like Neal Asher's The Skinner, that are set in a world that is so fascinating that shallowly drawn characters do seriously not hurt the readability of the novel. The world of Spin State is outlined, but never quite fully detailed. The main setting, a planet called Compson's World, has the gritty feel of an Appalachian coal mining town. Spin State does not rely on the flash of strange worlds, but rather on a finely drawn and complex main character, Catherine Li.
In Spin State something bad has happened to the Earth. Humans are no longer able to inhabit the planet on a full time basis. Humanity has spread out through the Galaxy, in huge orbital habitats and on terraformed alien worlds. One of these is Compson's World. The humans who originally settled these worlds are genetically engineered, raised in creches. The engineered humans are tougher and stronger, allowing them to survive better in the hostile environment of an alien world in the early states of terraforming.
Eventually the natural, unengineered humans that follow, rebel against the engineered competition that they feel they can't compete with. Further engineering of the human gene set is banned. Humans with engineered gene sets are not allowed the same rights and are not allowed to travel freely.
Catherine Li, the central character of Spin State does not come from standard human stock. As a baby she is adopted and raised on Compson's World by two natural human parents. She manages to escape the griding poverty of the mining planet and join the United Nations peacekeeping force.
Catherine Li joins the United Nations peacekeepers during a war with the Syndicate, an offshoot of the human race that has embraced engineered humanity. She rises to the rank of Major, but her background as an engineered human haunts her.
Spin State on the surface is a murder mystery. Catherine Li is sent to Compson's World, a place she has promised herself she would never return to, on a mission to solve the murder of Hannah Sharifi, a physicist whose world has allowed faster than light communication and travel. Hannah Sharifi is an engineered human and although she is a physicist on the level of Einstein or Schrodinger, she was never treated with the full rights that a natural human would have.
As the plot of Spin State unfolds the various facets Catherine Li's personality and story emerge. Li is a strong and at times brutal person, whose hard edges are a result of her background and her will to survive. By the end of the book, Catherine has become more than a warrior.
At the end of Spin State Chris Moriarty includes a number of references from physics, philosophy and artificial intelligence. The book frequently refers to Bose-Einstein condensates. In the book this is an exotic form of matter that can only be found on Compson's World. In our world Bose-Einstein condensates exist as a state of matter that is very near absolute zero. Bose-Einstein condenstates are a unique state of matter where all atoms exist in the same quantum state. However, if a Bose-Einstein condensate warms up even a little bit over its fractional closeness to absolute zero, its unique properties disapear.
The room temperature Bose-Einstein condensates in Spin State are the medium for faster than light communication and travel. Compson's World is of critical strategic importance because it is the only source for this exotic material. This also makes the supply of Bose-Einstein condensates a finite resource in the face of growing demand. Before she was murdered, Hannah Sharifi was working on a technique to grow artificial room temperature Bose-Einstein condensates.
The science underlying the plot of Spin State is somewhat tangential. The rare Bose-Einstein condensates of Compson's World provide a plot motivation, but they are not central to the plot. The character of Catherine Li is what draws the reader in and makes this book so good.
The plot of Spin State is complicated, at times to the point of obscurity. Wealthy people and people in the military, like Catherine Li, have neural implants throughout their central nervous system. This somehow allows them to experience virtual reality, but the details in Spin State are rather vague (for a science fiction book which revolves almost entirely around virtual reality, see Karl Schroeder's Lady of Mazes). There are a few scenes where Catherine is eating at an expensive resturant, via virtual reality, which has a strange feel about it. After all, even the most expensive virtual oysters are still just an illusion, even if you can taste them and feel them slide down your throat. All that it takes to produce a virtual oyster is the right neural hardware and large amounts of compute power. A real oyster, grown in an off-world habitat may be a different thing entirely.
There is another point in the story line where Catherine is attacked in virtual reality by an artificial intelligence. Thinking back, it is not clear to me what this entity was and I'm not sure we ever clearly find out (I think I know, but I'm not sure).
Perhaps the complexity and obscurity of the plot are the result of Spin State being Chris Moriarty's first novel. Complex plots are fascinating, but what drives the story is the core story line.
September 5, 2005
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