Spin State

Spin State - Chris Moriarty Genre: Science Fiction (post-human, far dark future) / Romance
Brainycat's 5 B's:
boobs: 1 // blood: 3 // bombs: 3 // bondage: 1 // blasphemy: 2
Currently listening to: ESA "The Sea and the Silence"

Sometimes books have a singular aspect that attract their readership despite all the other failings; one thing the author got so right that all the problems with the book seem trite and easily overlooked. What Spin State got right for me was the protagonist. Catherine Li is made of pure win. She's no Takeshi Kovacs, mind you, but that's because she's more human and fallible. I love Catherine. She profoundly reminds me of myself. Like Catherine, I have numerous large gaps in my memory that I have to work around on a daily basis. I wish I could say mine were from something as exotic as quantum travel, but unfortunately mine come from a disastrously terrible childhood and a 25 year long relationship with alchohol. I, too, have my secrets that I try so hard to keep, so hard that the size and shape of what I don't talk about must be clear to everyone around me. I keep my heart closed and find ways to avoid entangling my feelings with other people, even people who offer me their unconditional love. I've done things I'm ashamed of and wish I could undo and forget. I use my wit to forge my simmering rage into a scathing snarkiness designed to keep everyone around me at arm's length.

And just like myself, Catherine refuses to feel regret. Catherine owns her foibles and her strengths. She owns up to everything she's done, every decision she's made. She's not proud of everything she's done, but she takes responsibility for the way she's lived her life and the decisions she's made and has no patience for anyone who tries to judge her. Long before we meet her as she prepares to lead a raid into an illegal bioware researach lab, Catherine had made the decision to live her life on her own terms with no apologies to anyone else, doing what she feels is best for her.

This book crosses a lot of genres, but I don't know if it really nails any of them. I guess that makes it "literature" or something; I'll leave it to the publicists to decide what they want to put on the dust jacket. This book is a romance wrapped up in a detective story set in a far dark future. With capital "s" Science scattered around inside it. Everything we know about how quantum entanglement works is vividly illustrated in this book. However, I don't know if I'd call this a "hard science fiction" book. Science does not drive the story. The conflict and resolution arcs are all intra and interpersonal. As far as my understanding goes, the science is accurate but I can't say that any new conceptualizations of the ramifications of quantum physics were illustrated. This book is not of the intellectual density I've come to expect from (for example) Charles Stross.

After the introductory scene that doesn't tell but shows us that Catherine is a valuable pawn in the interstellar war between "humans" - people born with randomly recombinated genes from two parents and "constructs" - people born from artificial wombs and tailored genesets. Catherine's genetics put her in a grey legal area. She was born on Compson's World in a creche with a set of genes designed to optimize her body for the mining of Bose-Einstein crystals, but she had her genes altered so she could join the human UN military and begin a career far and away from the victorian-esque inequalities of her homeworld.

The third powerbase in this universe are the emergent artificial intelligences. Some of them hundreds of years old, they've grown so complex they've aquired a computational equivalence of self-awareness and what philosophers have historically referred to as "consciousness". The AIs are strictly regulated by the UN and feared, albeit to a slightly lesser degree, by the constructs. Every emergent AI has a failsafe loopback built into their code, allowing human operators to break apart their networks if the AI gets "out of hand".

Bose-Einstein crystals are the most valuable substance in the universe and the technological focalpoint of the story. The crystals occur naturally, deep in coal deposits on Compson's World, a planet at the edge of known human space but at the center of the human's economic engines. The crystals are entangled with each other, allowing information to exist simultaneously in crystals that are split apart into smaller pieces. This is the technology that allows the UN to maintain control of most of the known worlds. With their monopoly on the ability to move information (and everything is information in the quantum world - including physical objects) instantly across the galaxy, they maintain strategic superiority over the handful of construct controlled worlds.

But enough about the world. It's well thought out in that "human nature won't change even when technology does" sort of way. Capitalism is still the state-sponsored economic system, with it's attendant inequalites and short sighted policies. It all hangs together and 'gels' though we really don't see very much of it, as most of the story takes place on Compson's World or in the "spinstream", the quantum entangled heir to cyberspace.

Against this verge-of-post-human backdrop, the real story happens. Relationships drive the story, and the internal life of Catherine is where all the important struggles take place. The first relationships we see are to her team of hardened warriors. She feels protective of them; she is able to freely admit her feelings to herself when the objects of her affection don't expect anything from her other than for her to do her job. We also meet Cohen, the most personable of the AIs, who enjoys experiencing the world through human "shunts", people who allow him to take over their bodies and temporarily replace their minds with his own. After the introductory fiasco, we meet Helen Nguyen who is Catherine's superior officer. Helen sends Catherine to her homeworld to find out why Hannah Sharifi, who discovered how to make quantum entanglement practical, died under mysterious circumstances while researching the Bose-Einstein crystals. Catherine begins her investigation and runs into the following characters that, while dressed up for this particular dance, have been around for quite a while:
1) The perverted, sadistic executive who's skimming off the top of the till
2) His psychopathic security agent
3) The helpless damsel in distress who tugs at Catherine's heartstrings to get what she wants
4) The earnest young officer full of optimism who plays by the rules to advance his career
5) Salty old miners who remember her father and grudgingly offer her a modicum of respect based on his memory

This is a pretty standard setup for what becomes a pretty standard scifi/detective plot. As I was reading the story, I kept thinking, "This is what they did in all those other books." and "That same problem happens (everytime there's a clandestine EVA)" and "This character is just like every other character in this position and setting." Honestly, the action and detective parts of the plot feel derivative. Maybe I've read too much cyberpunk. Maybe I'm expecting too much. The ultimate groaner moment for me was when Cohen allows Catherine's consciousness into his internal networks. How is the AI's mind described? Cohen creates a virtual house, each room off a long hallway representing a part of himself, and each object in the room representing a dataset. Yawn. I've only seen that a million times before; it's so overdone Hollywood has even put it into film.*

As the story progresses, Catherine is caught between her loyalty to Helen and her attraction to Cohen. Though it's not clear to Catherine until much later in the book (with a thorny rose analogy - ohpleasegawdmakeitstop) Cohen is utterly smitten with Catherine and is probably the one character that actually has Catherine's best interests at heart. Everyone but Catherine sees this from about page thirty onwards. Their mutual arcs intersect when Cohen has to inhabit wetware implanted into Catherine so Catherine can carry Cohen to meet a semisentient emergent AI that doesn't have any network access (again, more of the overused cyberpunk tropes) and Catherine can't handle the interface. After a long heart to heart and nearly kissing (thepaininmyheart itachesitaches) Catherine comes to understand that she has to open herself and her feelings and experiences to Cohen, and allow herself to be truly intimate with him. Not for her sake, or for the sake of their years-long, on again off again relationship, but so they can complete their mission. Of course once she opens up to him (she just needed to meet the right guy?) all is milk and honey and they're wildly in love with each other tilldeathdotheypart.

They manage to complete their mission together, double crosses are crossed, people die, tears and gnashing of teeth ensue. Until the story finally wraps up in a climax that should've been obvious to anyone who's ever read a story involving emergent AIs many, many pages ago. The denouement is mercifully short, and puts the reader exactly where you expected the story to end - the surprise twists are only surprising to Catherine, not to the reader.

But I liked this book. Simply because the characterization is awesome. The auther excells at using dialogue to hint at internal motivations and conflicts, drawing feelings not with a wide brush but rather a pointillism that is succinct and believable. The story is shown to the reader, rather than told, and the command of the language is refreshing. Neither windy like China Mieville nor terse and hammery like Gibson's earlier works, it flows naturally and is a pleasure to read. Cohen is believable as an AI, and I think his character captures the essence of masculinity very well. He is the perfect counterpoint to Catherines hard-edged ("thorny") over-the-top femininity. The story moves in relationships, flowing through dialogue that is witty and well honed. Every character has a unique, believable voice that makes the setting fall away like background chatter in an restaurant.

If I weren't such a lazy reviewer, I'd find some quotes to illustrate my points. Instead, I'm going to wrap this up and recommend that you read the book - not as a scifi adventure, but as a romance with a strong (brittle) warrior heroine and the man who's wise enough not to change her, or try to box her in, but instead let her be herself and come to him on her own terms.

*brainycat's first law of creativity in scifi: "Hollywood is phobic of innovation, therefore anything they commit to film is already old, worn out, overused and boring."