Spin State - Chris Moriarty
Reviewed for Usenet (or see Google archive).
ISBN: 0553382136 (Amazon link)
My first impressions of Spin State were mixed; it is a very crowded novel by a new author, who takes elements of cyberpunk, hard SF and some mil-SF and crams them all together with a plot centred around a McGuffin FTL enabling mineral, and structured as a noir murder mystery. I was concerned that there were too many elements involved even for an experienced author, that the focus of the novel would suffer, and that I'd end up confused and frustrated by a grab bag of her favourite bits from her influences.
However, it only took a chapter or two for me to relax, confident that the author really knew what she was doing, and was pretty much in control all off the threads she'd started. In fact, my second impression was that I was reading CJ Cherryh style space opera rewritten by someone like Richard Morgan (Altered Carbon).
That impression might have come from the post held by the heroine; UN Peacekeeper Major Catherine Li. Who was it started the curious trend that all military in future based SF should be UN controlled? Anyway, the novel opens in comfortable mil-SF territory with Li getting involved in a disastrous mission trying to recover intelligence from an illegal wetware lab. Naturally, she's not been told the full truth, and in a familiar scene has a 'frank discussion' with the other lead - an AI named Cohen. Cohen is a fantastic character, being one of the few AIs who have achieved full sentience, and with an emotional personality to boot. Nonetheless, he is military hardware based and so he rides along with the troops in their heads, providing a gestalt tactical awareness greater than simple communications and dataflow, and with full control of one member via a 'shunt'.
Naturally, Things Go Badly, and in the bloody aftermath Li is in danger of seeing the full blame pinned on her, due to political machinations. Furious at the ruined mission, which costs the life of one of her friends, Li also turns her back on Cohen. Which turns out to be interesting, as the two of them have a complicated and surprising relationship, one which is almost like a bad movie pitch - "She's a cybernetically enhanced, bio-engineered super-soldier. He's an AI. They're in love."
This odd romance is in fact one of the strongest elements of this novel, and is oddly believable. Moriarty only has the decadent and sophisticated Cohen talk to Li via one of his shunts of course, a succession of unbelievably good looking young men and women. She takes pains to always differentiate between the shunt-the-person and the shunt-carrying-Cohen, almost dismissing the flesh as irrelevant in Li and Cohen's relationship.
Li is offered a mission which might rescue her career, but there are difficulties. The first is that it's not a simple soldiering job - Hannah Sharifi is dead, but this is not public knowledge, and Li is to investigate. Sharifi is the scientific genius who opened up FTL travel, which relies on Bose-Einstein condensates (handwavium with a undergrad physics degree).
The second is that the condensates are only found on one planet - Compson's World. Li really doesn't want to return to that griming mining planet, she grew up there and her family made extreme sacrifices to get her out of their world.
The third is that Li has kept her past a secret - the genetic tinkering that let her flee Compson's World with a new identity also hides that the fact that she is a clone, one of the same batch as Shaifi. This is a problem for many reasons, not least that humanity has fractured along bio-engineered lines, with the Syndicates forming a separate power bloc antagonist to Li's side. Naturally, the fact that she is bio-engineered cannot be hidden entirely, and it's common knowledge that she is a clone, but bias against her is offset by her heroic past in the Syndicate Wars - something that again carries some dirty secrets.
The final problem is a dozy - Li isn't really too sure of any of this as her memory is in ribbons. There's a catch with FTL travel in Moriarty's universe; it scrabbles your memory. A few memories lose coherence and get lost during each jump, but when you're called to jump as often as Li in her service, you can end up missing complete sections of your past. To make matters worse the military also like to edit her memories, removing things She Shouldn't Know, and also things judged to affect her performance - hard to get post-traumatic stress syndrome when you've no idea what happened. Of course, the primary aim of the this is to give the authorities full transcripts of what Li saw on-mission, and that level of access might reveal her true past. So Li has been editing her own memories as well, working around the military stuff, and hiding chunks of real memory.
Phew. Moriarty has clearly set up a complex universe, and I haven't even touched on the plot yet. Simply put, it's a whodunnit? Who killed Sharifi down the mine, and what was she doing there anyway?
The number of plot threads is at times overwhelming, but on the whole I was really impressed by the coherence of this novel. The primary characters are strong, and help tie together all the disparate elements, many of which would seem cliched if it weren't for the way they're been put together.
Spin State isn't perfect however, for every element I liked there was something that didn't quite work. I really liked the FTL gotcha for example, but was expecting it to play more of a role in the plot, perhaps utilising the fact that Li can't really trust what she knows - but perhaps that would have made this complicated novel utterly ridiculous to follow! I also didn't buy the blurring of the lines between VR and real life, finding that while the 'number storm' of cyberspace was well written and certainly progressed the plot, it felt more like magic when used in a full sensory manner. I didn't accept the idea that actions in one place could affect the other so fully, finding my suspension of disbelief straining. Equally, I was simply bemused by the grafting of an IRA sub-plot onto the already heavily over-written 'downtrodden miners' story-line. I was quite happy to go along with the social injustice, class war, union agitators, and religious crazies as they were a great read, but the addition of the IRA story-line just over-egged the pudding for me.
Overall though, this is a very strong debut novel from an author who's clearly going to do well for herself. Spin State combines a lot of familiar elements with sufficient added novelty to produce a very strong universe that will probably appeal most to those who've been reading authors like Richard Morgan, Neal Asher or Scott Westerfeld recently.
There's an interesting interview with the author here and you can judge her writing for yourself as the first chapter of Spin State is here.
Posted: Tue - December 30, 2003 at 01:31 PM