Sister Alice - Robert Reed

Reviewed for Usenet (or see Google archive).

Sister Alice
Robert Reed
Orbit publishers
ISBN: 184149125X (Amazon link)

I've only read one novel by Robert Reed before, Marrow, which I thought was fairly decent character-driven hard SF. I thought I'd give Reed's latest a try, mainly because if I like it, I have an excuse to rush out and buy Down the Bright Way when it comes out next month, hurray! (Better yet, it'll be in paperback so I can almost justify my compulsive book spending. Almost.)

Sister Alice is a fix-up novel, comprised of five novellas published first in Asimov's SF magazine. To be frank, for a fix-up the structure is very sound and I only noticed the multiple copyright details when I'd almost finished.

I found that Reed's 'voice' sounded familiar, but I still can't quite put my finger on who he reminds me of. The obvious comparison is to the hard SF works of someone like Greg Egan; Sister Alice is written on a huge scale - countless worlds are destroyed, millions of years pass, strange forms of matter abound, black holes are useful tools, and the fate of not one, not two, but many universes depends on our characters.

There are fundamental differences though - Reed focuses a lot more on characters, and his treatment of dark matter and similar is pure techno-babble, the real physics is rarely explored in any detail. Perhaps a closer comparison is to a less scientifically rigourous Wil McCarthy. What Reed has really written is a novel exploring apotheosis, and all the exotic trappings of modern physics only serve as stage dressing to the action - Clarke's Law certainly applies.

Sister Alice is set in the far future, and plain old humanity now exists in several diverse forms scattered throughout the galaxy. There are also 1000 Families of augmented post-humans; they don't rule exactly, but use their Talents to maintain a Pax Romana, while indulging their real passion and primary obligation, playing god, by terraforming new worlds for the plebs. The back-story is filled in smoothly with some of the middle novellas in particular concentrating on how this bizarre situation came about. Reed chooses to skip over some of the more interesting questions about the gifting and stripping of talents, which I think is a bit of a shame.

The book opens with a snowball fight by way of Ender's Game, with the stern Ravleen, a young member of House Sanchex and the Gold team's general, giving another kid on her team a severe kicking over some insubordination. Xo is the poor kid, a mere 50 years old, and is helped back home by his friend Ord, the Baby of the Chamberlain House. The uneasy relationship between these three - Ravleen, Xo and Ord - forms the core of the novel, even as they gain more and more of the Talents their Families possess.

Things get interesting when we find that not only do Family members continue to increase in ability with age, but that they are cloned copies of an original founder. Ord's life is about to become a lot more interesting - he's the House Baby, number 24,411, and for some reason one of the oldest surviving sisters is interested in him. Sister Alice is number 12, and possessed of exceptional abilities, barely human in any recognisable sense she has been living in the Galactic core with other Old Ones. But why her interest in Ord? Things turn unpleasant when Alice reveals the reason for her visit; she has come to atone, to apologise on behalf of her group - in trying to create a baby universe they might just have destroyed the Galaxy, or the whole Universe...

I enjoyed Sister Alice a lot, but felt that the techno-babble almost demanded more attention; I wanted more of the Talents explained, and in particular certain plot holes beg for this. I certainly wanted more explication of the effects of apotheosis on Ord - too much of the plot, in my opinion, was rendered in metaphor to be comfortable. Still, I'm being picky - this is a cracking piece of SF despite its flaws, and there is enough originality here for me to stick any other Reed titles on the Buy list.

Posted: Sat - September 13, 2003 at 07:49 PM