Monday, February 26, 2007

Charles Stross: Glasshouse

Charles Stross's Glasshouse has been nominated for the Prometheus award. The theme of overcoming ubiquitous surveillance makes it a likely finalist and a possible winner this year.

The story takes place in an advanced post-nanotech world where the primary means for long distance travel is cellular deconstruction, data transmission, and reconstruction. In addition to that, you can edit your body and mind before reconstruction, allowing you to modify your basic body type or gender, remove signs of aging, or edit your memories. Unfortunately, this also means that anyone who controls the gates can control what comes out the other end.

Robin, our protagonist, is one of several people who are going through rehab—apparently their most recent life left them with some mental trauma, and the editing at their last reconstruction wasn't as complete as it should have been, so they are getting used to their newest selves and learning to integrate into mainstream society. Since someone seems to be trying to kill Robin (who has strong self-preservation skills and instincts, but doesn't remember why), the choice to accept an invitation into an anonymity-enforcing experiment in recovering information about a lost historical period makes sense. The historical period is ancient earth; really a Hollywood-based view of 1950s-1990s America, but with many details elided, and the entire period mixed together in one giant mish-mash of the experimenters' guesses about why the stereotyped sex roles could co-exist with various anachronistic technologies and mores.

"In order to study the emergent properties of the society" the experimenters are constructing, the subjects are constantly monitored and rewarded with points for remaining in character, and lose points (both individually and for their cliques) for arbitrary behaviors the experimenters want to discourage. Some of the participants quickly adopt the point system as their primary driver of value, while Robin and a few others find unseen ways to fight back. Eventually, Robin discovers a cell of others who want to stop the experiment and/or escape.

The story is well-told and interesting, with both action scenes and psychological studies of the characters. The conflict is engaging, and the elaboration of the background (I haven't given it all away here) is rolled out in a plausible sequence. The exploration of how modern society will look to far-future societies is entirely plausible, with or without intentional culling of the historical records. Stross's characters have a believably accepting attitude to gender- and bodyplan-switching, and their reactions to an attempt to impose a cartoon interpretation of 1950s gender roles is convincing.

There aren't any obvious governments, but several factions are struggling to become the de facto monopolists on political control and the use of force, either locally or throughout the connected polities. The idea that societies that can communicate as easily as they do throughout the Invisible Republic might still maintain distinctly different political systems is interesting. The implication that it might be stable as long as no one manages to subvert the gates that enable cheap commerce is intriguing.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Sheri S. Tepper: Six Moon Dance

Sherry Tepper's Six Moon Dance is an intriguing fantasy. It starts out seeming to be an investigation of a society with unusual sex roles (half the female babies on Newholme die as infants, so women have unusual power. Men are seen as the weaker sex, and male concubines are common; Mouche, the viewpoint character, will train to be one). The story slowly morphs into a deeper exploration of the interaction between a bizarre quasi-human society, and two interesting alien organisms, mediated by the Great Questioner, a cyborg with her own problems. Each has been changed by their interactions with the others.

Humans have only inhabited this world for a few hundred years. The first settlers didn't notice the native life (they were hiding until they figured out the settlers intentions), which put them in a bind because the Council of Worlds enforces their version of the Prime Directive harshly. The native life has some rather fantastic powers: budding off individuals who can live a separate life for a while and then reabsorb, returning their memories to the collective.

The story arises because the Questioner (the investigator and enforcer of the Prime Directive) schedules a visit at the same time as Newholme's periodic geologic upheavals start again in earnest. The natives have dealt with the problem in the past (it's partly of organic origin and intricately related to both the themes of multi-species intertwining and strange sex roles) but need more help from the humans this time around, since their presence has disrupted their normal approaches. But if the local humans are to escape punishment, the Questioner mustn't notice the shenanigans.

Of course, the Questioner has her own resources, and her job is to be suspicious, so everything unravels. But along the way, this is more than the story of an investigation, and Tepper describes events and people very poetically. Here are a few excerpts to give a taste:

Questioner has drafted two young dancers to help her with the investigation on Newholme, and as they were still struggling to find their identities, her intervention has interrupted their progress. Gandro Bao has trained as a Kabuki dancer, which has given him some sex-role confusion (excuse his broken English, please.) The other dancer, Ellin Voy has identity issues since she found out she is a clone raised to be a dancer just like her mother and her many sisters.

"So, I am being confused, and some days I am looking at face in mirror and thinking, who is this? Is this male or female? Is this real person or only actor? ... So when I am twelve, ... and deciding I am whoever I am wanting to be! Who I am choosing to be!"
"But that's just it! I can't choose who to be! I never had a choice!"
"You cannot choose to be horse, or fish, or tree, no. But it is like this. You are like small seed, and this ship is like big wind, and it is blowing seed from small plant far, far away where is no other such plant. And plant is not saying, 'Oh, oh. I cannot be oak tree, I cannot be bamboo, I cannot be cactus, I have no choice.' Plant is not so silly as that. Plant is putting down roots of own self and growing! And while it is growing, when things are difficult, it changes a little bit, so when it is grown, it is not exactly like the plant it was coming from. It adapts."

Near the end of the book, Mouche is consoling the Questioner:

"the true story of any living thing has pain in it, and life has to be that way. Curiosity is a good goad, but pain is a better one. It is pain that moves us, that makes us learn how to cure, how to mend, how to improve, how to re-create. Inside all of us, even the happiest are memories of pain. ... Each of us cries that we are lost. We ask the darkened room, who are we? And we demand easy answers: I am my father's son. My mother's daughter. A child of this family, or that."
"That's the nature of mankind," she agreed.
"True, but Corojum had an answer that is equally true, and I like his better! We are made of the stuff of stars, given our lives by a living world, given our selves by time. We are brother to the trees and sister to the sun. We are of such glorious stuff we need not carry pain around like a label. Our duty, as living things, to be sure that pain is not our whole story, for we can choose to be otherwise. As Ellin says, we can choose to dance.

The part about being driven by pain doesn't resonate with me, but I liked the way the story illuminated the exhortation to choose.