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Jan 22

Week 3: A sad farewell, Cliches and Transhumanism

Books Read

(R)evolution by PJ Manney

Edge of Dark by Brenda Cooper

Currently Reading

Archangel by Marguerite Reed

(1)

On January 20 2016 David G. Hartwell, senior editor at Tor books, passed away after suffering from a massive stroke.  The many tributes that have been published make clear the role Hartwell played in influencing and shaping science fiction, fantasy and horror over his fourty years as an editor. He edited or co-edited well over fifty anthologies and was editor to Frank Herbert, Gene Wolfe and countless other writers still working today.  As Jonathan Strahan pointed out on Facebook, Hartwell was always looking forward, searching for the next new voice to nurture and develop.

He was also a mensch.  I say that from personal experience having not only met him at Worldcon but also in New York when Moshe Feder took me around the Tor offices in the flatiron building.  Sporting one of his incredible ties, David wouldn’t let me leave unless I’d taken with me, literally, a suitcase worth of books.  (In fact so many that a bunch of them had to be shipped back to Australia).  I’ll always remember that.  His generosity, his friendly nature and his passion for all things genre.

I pass my condolences on to his family, to his wife Kathryn Cramer, to all those at Tor who worked alongside him and for all of you who knew him.

(2)

If 2016 was a video game I’d be pressing the restart button.

Anyway, onto this week’s books.

(3)

I read more than half of PJ Manney’s (R)evolution before I gave up on it.  I’m not sure why I lasted that long, why I didn’t put the book down a third of the way through when it was clear I was no longer engaged but rather hate reading. I suppose it’s that completest bug that compels me to keep churning through the pages even when I know it’s a lost cause. In anycase (R)evolution has the infamy of being the first book I’ve given up on in 2016.  Aside from some awful, plodding writing (and one sex scene that was laughably horrible) what shat me about (R)evolution was how predictable it was.

The novel’s plot revolves around a scientist named Peter Bernhardt and his revolutionary brain therapies using nanobots. When those very same nanites are used to kill 70,000 people at a Las Vegas tech conference Bernhardt’s company and life falls to ruin. And then, from stage left, he discovers that his best mate from school is a member of the Phoenix Club, your average secret society which wields great power and influence. The Phoenix Club offers Bernhardt membership promising to support his work with money and resources. Not surprisingly their offer like a Nigerian 419 scam is far too good to be true.

(R)evolution is a checklist of shitty clichés.

  • The Phoenix Club turns out to be evil – check;
  • Bernhardt’s wife apparently dies off-screen only to turn up alive – check;
  • Bernhardt’s best friend betrays him – check;
  • Bernhardt is a saved from the Phoenix Club’s clutches by a sexy woman – check;
  • He ends up fucking said sexy woman – check…

And so on.

Bleeding edge advancements aside – and here I’m assuming that Manney knows her tech – there isn’t a single original idea in this novel.  Worse than that, Manney inflicts on us an unsympathetic protagonist (early on Bernhardt describes his wife as his very own Pocahontas, I kid you not) and a fellow scientist and genius named Ruth who speaks in a series of cringeworthy Yiddish phrases. I’d call Ruth a horrible stereotype, but stereotypes usually have some basis in reality.

This novel was nominated for the PKD Award and while I accept that taste is subjective, I can’t understand why anyone of sane mind and disposition would nominate (R)evolution for anything.  I can only pray that the rest of the PKD nominees aren’t this dreadful.

(4)

Fortunately Brenda Cooper’s Edge of Dark is a shitload better than Manney’s novel.  Interestingly both Cooper and Manney are futurists, detailing transhumanism and humanity’s next evolutionary stage of development.  But whereas Manney’s take is mired by horrible prose, caricatures masquerading as people and a cliché instead of a plot, Cooper provides us with some robust world building, decent prose and a narrative that’s fuelled by the novel’s transhuman themes.

Edge of Dark is set in the same Universe as her previous two novels (the Ruby’s Song duology) though prior knowledge isn’t required. Ruby Martin is mentioned a couple of time but only because she’s part of the background (or mythology) of one of the lead protagonists, Nona Hall.

I’m awful at summarising plots, and there’s quite a bit going on in this novel.  But to reduce it down to the basics, The Next, a loose society of cyborgs who were banished to the edge of the solar system – not our solar system – have, many years later, decided it’s time to return home.  For the residents of the Glittering, the many space stations that populate the solar system, some of which orbit the planet Lym, this goes down like a lead balloon, especially after The Next destroy one of the outer space stations in a ruthless and savage moment of violence.  Chrystal lives on that space station and she and her family – her two husbands, Yi and Jason and her wife Katherine – survive the attack only to have their consciousness transferred into synthetic bodies.  Chrystal’s close friend Nona, believing Chrystal is dead, is sent to the outer reaches of the solar system to parlay with The Next.  Along for the ride comes Charlie, a resident of Lym who has spent most of his life restoring the ecologically ravaged planet.  The Next want to mine Lym awakening all sorts of fears in Charlie.

*Takes a deep breath.*

So yeah, plenty going on and Cooper handles it well.  Her main theme, that old Science Fiction canard as to what it truly means to be human – is our physicality as important as our consciousness or “soul”? – is neatly weaved through the narrative.  And while Cooper doesn’t provide any real breakthroughs on the topic, Chrystal’s struggle with her own humanity, now that she part of the Next, is the strongest part of the book.

Where Edge of Dark struggles, at least for me, is the depiction of The Next.  Cooper seems to be having a bet each way in that The Next are demonstrated to be cold, ruthless killers, slaughtering men and women and children who aren’t deemed as valuable, while also characterising them as a society that’s willing to negotiate and avoid war with The Glittering. Given how powerful they are (it’s often remarked that they’re unstoppable), their decision not to methodically destroy The Glittering makes very little sense. It’s a bit like The Borg turning up on Earth’s doorstep and asking to have a chat and a nice cup of tea.  If Cooper is trying to create a sense of ambiguity about The Next and their aims, it didn’t ring true with me.

It’s possible the second novel in the series will explore this idea further.  I doubt I’ll be reading it though.  Edge of Dark is nice enough book – the characters are engaging without being memorable, and the plot has some nice moments without providing any surprising plot beats.  And overall while well-integrated into the book – far superior to Manney’s attempt – I don’t think I’m the audience for Cooper’s or anyone’s brand of transhumanism.

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