The Causal Angel

The Causal Angel
Hannu Rajaniemi

Science Fiction has shifted ground in the past few years. Not long ago, a certain group of writers was in the ascendant, preaching a gospel of Singularity. Egan, Stross, Vinge, and others explored the combinations of strong AI and the digitization of the mind, pointing to futures where our meaty bodies are at best an affectation, at worst a hindrance. Their ideas were so persuasive that the Singularity became a kind of stand in for FTL during the somber, Mundane SF era – a topic that had to be addressed in all serious SF either by its mechanism or absence. Before long though, a backlash began to build, with other writers taking up the cross for physical bodies, positing the unbreakable connection between our physical, emotional, and intellectual selves. Of late, I think that the humanist side is beating back the post-humanists. Even Stross himself has backpedaled a bit from his heady Accelerando positions. I wonder if this affects the reception to each new Hannu Rajaniemi book, as he pushes further into a post-humanist future in spite of the efforts of humanists.

The Quantum Thief was the talk of 2011, winning fans and adulation for its mind-bending science, carefully crafted mystery, and the sophisticated and elegant protagonist, Jean le Flambeur. One year later, The Fractal Prince was released, but to more muted acclaim. Not everyone enjoyed a book that was admittedly more obtuse and seemed to lack some of the flair of the first. Now, with The Causal Angel available and Rajaniemi’s trilogy at an end, I haven’t seen much buzz. Even assuming that a certain amount of people never made it through The Quantum Thief, and that a certain percentage of the finishers didn’t enjoy The Fractal Prince enough to continue, I would still think that The Causal Angel is enough to stir up the community. Rajaniemi is one of the boldest new writers and his trilogy is a major statement of intent; I think it deserves to be talked over a bit more by serious genre readers.

Several reasons why people might not go for this stuff occur to me. The books are indeed difficult, and not just for the science. It’s easy to get lost in the q-dots and branes, but also pretty hard to figure out what is going on in the plot. The Causal Angel is easier on the head than the first two, but there is a definite learning curve that can turn off less determined consumers. I’ve also seen comments that Rajaniemi’s books are ornate and convoluted, but ultimately small and dispassionate. This can be true for the first book in the series, less so for the second, and not at all for the newest. The Causal Angel is still stuffed with filigree and decorative language, but there are planets blowing up, space battles, demi-gods in conflict, and deep matters of the heart. The author is (finally?) taking his stories to the big time. Finally, I suspect that Rajaniemi forces many readers out of their comfort zones. This is not your father’s science fiction, but more on that later. In short, the entire Jean le Flambeur trilogy is a bit like a cycle of Scarlatti or Telemann sonatas. Baroque to be sure, complex and emotionally restrained, and requiring a certain effort to enjoy, but worth the investment.

Now that we have dispensed with the criticisms, I want to dig in to why Rajamiemi could become one of the most important Hard SF writers. In a past episode of the Coode Street Podcast (my usual touchstone for the academic side of SF), the hosts debated the greatest challenges to SF right now. The consensus was not the pace of technological change, publishing industry upheaval, the way we seem to live in the future already, or any of the other usual vectors of attack. They concluded that the challenge today is instead quantum physics. Books about rockets or engineering projects are easy compared to authentic looks at all the crazy quantum stuff going on; how many readers understand it anyway? (I certainly don’t.) Writing about real science now is brain meltingly complex and does not necessarily make for good stories. Much easier to rehash epic space battles or transpose the 1990s into the coming centuries.

Enter Hannu Rajaniemi. He hits quantum theory head on, then goes one further by pairing it with the inevitable future of dialed up augmented reality. He deals with uploaded personalities, a Solar System-wide information network, parallel worlds of the physical and virtual, and practical applications of all of the quantum theory stuff that I have no grasp of whatsoever. Physical spaceships move through orbits and Lagrange points, past servers and routers that power the digital worlds overlaying everything, while characters flit in and out of various bodies and frames of reference. Power in the Solar System is split more or less evenly between the Sobornost, which is run by multiple immortal clones of its Founders and is engaged in manually processing randomness out of the universe, and the Zoku, loose affiliations that have taken as a name the Japanese word for “tribe” and treat everything as a game to level up in. The conflict between the two rages between physical and virtual dimensions and at different levels of time compression, over ideological questions of such hot topics as causality.

Yes, this is meaty stuff and certainly not escapist fare. But Rajaniemi has planted his flag on the twin peaks of quantum theory and post-humanism and seems more than willing to give battle there. The latter is still up for debate to be sure, and Rajaniemi’s position is in decline, if my reading of the current state of the genre is correct. The former, however, is a topic that must be dealt with. All that wacky quantum stuff isn’t going anywhere; it can’t be avoided if Hard SF is to be honest with itself. This too, though, sees Rajaniemi in a minority position. The current trend in SF seems to be a return to the earthier SF of the 70s and 80s, as typified by the blockbuster Expanse series or Scalzi’s Old Man’s War books. I read The Causal Angel as a broadside from the author, a gauntlet thrown down as an invitation to glorious single combat in the name of quantum physics. This must become the future of Hard SF, if Hard SF is going to maintain its devotion to The Way Things Really Work.

In many ways, I can trace a line directly from Neuromancer to The Causal Angel. Both offer hallucinogenic views of a confusing technological future. Both borrow the faux-futurism of Japan. Both bid to overthrow the orthodoxy of the genre with cutting edge technology. I have no idea if Jean le Flambeur will leave the same firestorm in his wake that Case did (I suspect not), but I have popcorn on hand in case things get amusing.

As a final nugget, I must express my joy that Rajaniemi’s Bad Guy is drawn from the pages of one of my favorite books on game theory: Robert Axelrod’s The Evolution of Cooperation. The All Defector is an actual participant in Axelrod’s competition who, appropriately enough, never actually wins the game. I may be more excited about this than is healthy, but it’s a brilliant touch. (Everyone should enjoy game theory and everyone should read Axelrod.)

My own enthusiasm for Jean le Flambeur should be apparent by now. I will be following the conversation surrounding his story, looking for greater meaning and some indication of whether it is a turning point in the genre, just a monumental but ultimately overlooked statement, or the beginning of an iconoclastic career. Or who knows – maybe Rajaniemi’s next book will be about a farm boy who slowly learns his true destiny and saves a vaguely European kingdom from the darkest of lords, and my grandiose pronouncements here will prove completely overblown.

Kamo and Pep Together at Last – Pt. 3


And so we come to the final round of this “meating” of the minds. We’d like to thank our sponsors, the audience watching at home, and all of the voters who have kept Kamo and Pep in through rounds one and two. Phone lines will open after the competition for viewers to submit their requests for the next pageant to be held.

Round Seven – Sexytimes (AKA: The Dance OF LOVE)

Kamo: There are five genders. What have you got?

Pep: While it would be amazing if The Spy and The Secretary had a magical moment, especially as The Spy is a mousy, female historian and The Secretary is a one-eyed savage, no such luck. There is a relationship shown in flashback that is torn apart by patriotism, but it won’t hold a candle to five genders.

Kamo: I dunno. It’s only the one culture with that wide a spread of standard roles (though most others have three), and while the Dhai are well down with the polyamory, as a whole the book is an unexpectedly sexless thing. There are a couple of narrowly avoided rapes, and that dysfunctional married couple get interrupted in flagrante (though that’s arguably marital rape as well), but aside from that the only instance of actual consensual sex is a soft-soap PG-13 tilt shot of entwined hands and rumpled bedsheets, followed by a jump cut to coffee and awkward small talk the next morning. Do we get to count this as a theme? There must be no fucking unless it’s awful?

Pep: May I recommend The Barrow for that sort of thing? You’d love it. Nothing but hateful sexytimes. Aside from a bit of human-affirmation-through-naughty-words at the end, we mostly get kind of a censored recollection in City of Stairs. Saypur does, to its credit, have the sort of progressive marriage ideas usually relegated to SF (gender equality, term contracts, hetero- and homo- options, etc), while Bukilov is typically repressive in the way we expect religious communities to be.

Kamo: I should probably clarify at this point that I am in no way clamouring for hateful sex, fictional or otherwise. Though on the plus side this is starting to crystalise for me how for all the novelty of ME’s world it is in many ways quite traditional. Screwing isn’t something that fantasy has usually done all that well, and we’re following that formula here. Gender (and to a certain extend ethnicity) switches aside most of this is your traditional Epic Fantasy pushed to the limits of complexity and then some. EF with a new bass riff and the volume turned up to eleven. I think we can all agree that that’s generally a good thing.

Round Eight – Disco

Kamo: That said, if I’m being perfectly honest the first half of this book just doesn’t work like it should. I’ll try to diagnose it more accurately, because a work with this many obvious and significant strengths deserves better than such cursory dismissal, but it may well prove beyond me. The Mirror Empire took me almost a month to read and, even allowing for its length and a whole host of untimely distractions in my personal life, it’s incredibly rare that a work of fiction I genuinely like (and I should emphasize again that I really do like this book a lot) will ever take me that long; not six seven eight so many weeks ago I disposed of the similarly sized Matter in the course of a long weekend. I keep vacillating on the exact reasons for this, but ultimately I think it’s a perfect storm of little misfires we might usefully group together under the heading ‘Tension Management’.

For example, the chapters feel fairly short which means you can read at a fair old clip, but also means that you don’t spend much time with any one individual, exacerbating that ‘slow-burn’ characterization. This is where those generic expectations start to matter, because two of the key tropes present are the now standard Massive Epic Fantasy Cast of POV Characters and the sprawling, byzantine political interplay of factions, nations, empires, and entire worlds. This is a lot to keep straight in your head and is, perhaps, one of the more comfortable/convenient excuses for why so much EF defaults to a mediaeval European setting; it’s nice and familiar and lets you devote more mental space to the characters and plot. When you’re trying to create meanings for scores of unfamiliar proper nouns, having to make further mental room for homicidal perambulatory trees and quintipartite gender constructions and cometary magic systems is a touch overwhelming. On the upside, none of the swords had fucking names, which is always a relief.

For all that innominate weaponry though, the first half of this book is also unexpectedly placid. You get a rip-roarer of a prologue and then I think I counted about two more fight scenes in the next 200 pages. This is obviously a pretty crude metric but is indicative of the lack of what, in this Post-Ned Stark era, I like to call* the Flick Factor – when a character’s chapter ends in suspenseful irresolution and you find yourself quickly leafing forward in order to confirm that they reappear, if not hale and hearty, then at least alive and in possession of most of their major body parts. To be fair, this improves as the book progresses and includes an almost joyfully literal cliffhanger, but early on there’s a lot of talk and treaties and positioning and most chapters are wrapped up a little too neatly. Too many natural breaks, which meant that once the book was put down I was under much less compulsion to pick it up again. But pick it up I did, because most of what I’ve just described is par for the Epic Fantasy course. The label implies making a certain commitment for the long-haul, though if I hadn’t been primed for that there‘s a small but real chance this book might still be on the bedside table.

Pep: I had no such difficulty with City of Stairs. The first section roused my semi-dormant love of spy fiction and I stayed right with Bennett as the story switched gears into politico-historic fantasy. Much of this can be credited to Bukilov’s compelling magnetism, but Shara is also the sort of character that many SFF readers will naturally gravitate towards. Reviewer bias should be noted here; if there’s anyone out there who wants to read politically and religiously charged stories about imaginary worlds that are narrated by nerdy history professors, it’s me. I should probably try to pick nits about Bennett’s craft or technique, but it’s kind of beyond me right now. Book Two is apparently in the works; I’ll be waiting in line for a copy.

Kamo: The absence of nits and the picking thereof is to be applauded, I think, but unfortunately not something I’m temperamentally inclined towards. It’s a personal failing, I know. Despite all that however, you (singular and plural) should read The Mirror Empire, as its weaknesses are nothing genre readers haven’t learned to deal with and are amply compensated for by its strengths, which are important in needful ways. Hurley’s last trilogy definitely got tighter as it progressed and I have every confidence that’ll happen here too; frankly she’s set up such a glorious playground for her characters that cool stuff can’t not happen. Now all we have to do is think up another tortured metaphor for our joint post about the sequels…

Pep: I am all for torturing metaphors, especially if we are doing it in tandem. Beauty pageants are no fun when it’s just me. All the more when I lose. Speaking of beauty pageants, this whole thing just reminded me of that one story in the Apex book we both read, about gladiatorial Miss Universe. I digress. Mirror Empire is on my list, though I may wrap up the Nyx-and-bugs books first. I suspect our tastes are close enough that you (and many of the Royal You out there) will dig City of Stairs. Until next time!

[Go on, embed a video of You Can’t Touch This at the end. If not now, then when? ;) ]
[I … can’t. Some sort of reaction to parachute pants and high top fades.]


*By which I mean, “Here’s a pleasingly alliterative phrase I’ve just made up.”

Kamo and Pep Together At Last – Pt. 1


Kamo (this is how she fight start): Unless you’ve been dead for the last couple of months (or alternatively completely uninterested in contemporary speculative fiction, in which case YOU’RE DEAD TO ME! DEAD I TELL YOU!) then you’ll have noticed that both Kameron Hurley and Robert Jackson Bennett have recently released new books. While I plumped for a pre-order of Hurley’s Mirror Empire our estimable host here at Two Dudes ended up reading Bennett’s City of Stairs, and so some kind of joint post seemed like the thing to do. Pep, as is his wont, will probably be looking to tease out themes and draw Significant Conclusions about The State of The Genre, but I am both more capricious and more easily distracted and I quite fancy doing this as an antagonistic Jets vs Sharks thing for no other reason than since August these two books have accounted for about two-thirds of my Twitter timeline. So we’re going to have a dance-off. We’ll drag the books on stage, whack some MC Hammer on the boombox and see which has the better moves and more garish costume. Pep and I will champion our respective books, or, since we’re talking about fantasy here, I’ll be pitching for Team Edward and Pep for Team That Other One With The Eyebrows.

Pep: Go Eyebrows. I’m all ready to dance, with a playlist cued up of Westside Story, “Can’t Touch This,” and “Superfreak.” (That’s the Rick James tune that Hammer sampled, for all you young’uns out there.) I tried to wear my old parachute pants, but they don’t fit now, more’s the pity.

Round One – Contemporary Hip-Hop

Kamo: We begin, as we seemingly must, with considerations of genre. Both books appear to be characterized by the genre-straddling that seems to be in fashion at the moment: is it horror? is it fantasy? is it science fiction or new weird or slipstream? Who cares?

We do. We care. Or at least I do, for reasons I’ll try to tease out later on. In the meantime The Mirror Empire slots itself relatively neatly into the drawer marked Epic Fantasy. We can be fairly certain of this because there’s a map inside the front cover depicting the conveniently rectangular landmass upon which events are set to unfold. There’s also magic and intrigue and prophecies and children marked for greatness and a metric fuckton of blood. (Is that the correct unit of measurement for lots and lots of blood? An arselitre perhaps? A twatgallon?). There are some vague feints in the ‘indistinguishable from magic’ direction, but as this the first of a series we’ll have to let those bubble along for another book or two, I suspect.

Pep: I care a great deal about genre, or in this case, the breaking thereof. I suppose the catch-all is “fantasy,” but for me it’s more of Cold War spy thriller/steampunk/political fantasy/dead gods religious horror. Is that an official genre yet? If John Le Carre and Immanuel Wallerstein teamed up to write gaslight fantasy with religious underpinnings, we might get City of Stairs. Very little of this book conforms to convention, so the one giant nod to fantasy tropes stands out like a skyscraper in the Sahara. That would be Sigurd, the sidekick and “secretary” for the main character. Sigurd is a brazen archetype, almost a Platonic form of the savage Northern barbarian. It probably goes without saying that he totally kicks everyone’s butt, all of the time. He is certainly jarring, but I’m pretty sure it’s just Bennett trolling the fanboys. When Sigurd is offscreen, things focus much tighter on spycraft, historical analysis, and the governance of empire.

Round Two – Pasa Doble

Kamo: AH-HA! A theme! I told you there’d be some. Because if the genre of ME is relatively easy to define, what raises it above its peers is the way it interrogates, subverts, and generally abuses some key conventions of that genre. And this means we must gird whatever parts of our anatomy we feel most in need of girding and discuss worldbuilding; the storytelling equivalent of Stuart in Accounting who never shuts up about his static caravan in Dorset and that one time he met Carol Vorderman in Tesco but is also the only person in the company who knows how to correctly file VAT returns.

Pep: Apropos nothing really, I wish the US had VAT. It’s a revenue tool vastly superior to most of what we have in place.

Kamo: Now there’s whole other can of worms. Given Japan’s just called an election at least notionally as a referendum on a sales tax increase, with all the promised fun a Japanese election entails, you’ll forgive me if I’m not particularly well disposed to the subject right now. Which is a pain, because I’m usually not so well-disposed to worldbuilding, either, viewing it with a grudging tolerance as, at best, a slightly tiresome necessity for the greater good of the story. I mention this here because while I’ve read, enjoyed, and can highly recommend Hurley’s Bel Dame Apocrypha, she does have an approach to worldbuilding perhaps best described as, “KITCHEN SINK? FUCK YOU AND YOUR SHITTY TIMID SINK, BUDDY,” which means that there’s inevitably going to be a bit of tension on this point. (Read more about Bel Dame here! And here!) Somewhat counterintuitively, it’s an approach that works for me more often than not; whatever else you may accuse her of, she definitely commits to the universes she creates and if you’re going to throw it all at the wall and see what sticks you might as well throw it as hard as you fucking can. Things adhering with a resounding SPLAT! in this instance vary from the overtly ideological (one participant culture has five standard genders, and even in those with a smaller range of roles the male-female continuum is notably mutable), to the innovative twists on the familiar (magicians wax and wane in power according to whether their associated satellites are ascendant or not), to the just plain cool (KILLER BONE TREES! URSINE STEEDS! MAGIC NINJAS!). This book has many strengths, and I think it’s fair to say that the majority of them grow from the mindblowing universe that Hurley has set in motion.

Pep: Coincidentally, worldbuilding is really where Bennett makes his mark. City of Stairs has possibly the best setting in years; it’s completely irresistible. Imagine a city of the gods, animated by their power and filled with all the wonder and beauty that godlike power can bestow. Then imagine the catastrophe when the gods are killed – floating towers crashing to the earth, lines of reality redrawn, temperate weather reverting to a natural tundra, the works. With this description alone, Bukilov is one of fantasy’s most engaging cities, and this is just from the dust jacket. The Bukilov we see is a fallen capital, ravaged by poverty and disease as the empire it once commanded is ruled by a former colony, the upstart Saypur. The first fifty pages of the book felt like a spy novel set in post-WWII Warsaw, with all the paranoia, suspicion, and tradecraft in a rubble-strewn city.

Kamo: All to the good, I’m sure, but I notice that you nowhere mention Magic Ninjas. This must count against it, I fear.

On the upside, it looks like we can also tick off ‘messy colonialism’ (is there any other kind?) in our I-Spy book of Discourses in Contemporary SFF. The scope of ME is several orders of magnitude larger than a single city, but here too the cultures are marked, and to a large extent defined, by their previous roles as both colonizers and colonized. The history provided for each culture is vast, even if explanations of the accumulated waves of invasion, subjugation, decline, and re-invasion do occasionally bear an unfortunate resemblance to the recruitment scene in Hot Shots (‘They’re the guys sent in to colonize the guys sent in to colonize the guys sent in to colonize…” It’s turtles all the way down). The in-play cultures also all seem to have names that start with D, which doesn’t help with telling them apart. I’m sure there are very sound linguistic reasons for some of the similarities, but what kind of loon would base an epic fantasy on linguistics?

Pep: Very true, there are no magic ninjas. Boo. Or killer bone trees. There is a lot of colonialism however. Saypur revolts, then conquers through science and economics. Once itself oppressed, Saypur now attempts to control the Continent by erasing its history. All references to the dead gods, no matter how obscure or unintentional, are proscribed. The conflict between heritage-burying colonizers and conquered believers flows through and around everything else that happens in the book.

Kamo: This does appear to be A Thing right now. Witness the recent World Fantasy win for A Stranger in Olondria (Note: I really hope this reference is still current by the time we finish this post). Is it that new though? I’m not asking as a rhetorical device either, I get the impression that you’re much better versed in ‘the classics’ than I am. Is it just more visible than before, or is genuinely being interpreted in new ways that extend beyond transparent proxies for The White Man’s Burden?

Pep: I think it is indeed a new thing. People probably touched on it during the New Wave (the period of SF I know the least about), but I don’t think there was a broad consciousness about the whole colonization issue until recently, even in society as a whole. It’s probably related to the ongoing globalization of SFF, at last no longer the sole preserve of white men. I’m trying to think of books that really took on issues of empire or oppressed people, and nothing really comes to mind until the last few years.

With this, Part One comes to a close. Kamo and Pep continued to ramble, at great length, so please stay tuned for Part Two, to be posted over on This is How She Fight Start.

War Dogs

War Dogs
Greg Bear

There had better be a sequel for this.

Greg Bear returns from shared universe forays with a military/Hard SF hybrid set on Mars that borrows gleefully from a whole grab bag of classic SF tropes. I had fun with it, but my final verdict will depend largely on where he takes it in the second book, for reasons that will become clear later on. Part of me wants to call this a return to form for the veteran Hard SF writer, but it’s really hard to say what exactly “form” is for Bear. I enjoyed his previous book, Hull Zero Three, though it felt a bit like something he tossed off in a weekend. Lately he is working with Neal Stephenson’s Mongoliad project and has written in the Halo and Foundation franchises. My idea of typical Greg Bear is hopelessly out of date, since I haven’t read his near future stuff and basically only know vintage stuff like Blood Music and Forge of God. Still, this feels like him going back to his 1980s playbook.

My first thought on starting the book was, “I guess it’s time to get in touch with the Inner Heinlein.” It’s all there: the space marines, the power suits, the drop from orbit in the first pages. I’m starting to think that the interstellar infantry thing is like jazz albums with strings – everyone wants to try it once, no matter how often (and how badly) it’s been done in the past. Full disclosure: I generally don’t like jazz albums with strings. It turns out that Greg Bear apparently knows a thing or two about this, as a recent interview shows. He grew up around military types and has certainly dabbled in soldier-type stories before, so this isn’t a complete change of form.

The nods to traditional SF start early with the semi-benevolent aliens who appear suddenly and start doling out both technology and strong policy recommendations. Then, and I’m spoiling nothing here that isn’t on the dust jacket, things quickly move into familiar “superior aliens enlist our help as cannon fodder” territory when they start shipping Earthlings to fight a mysterious enemy on Mars. Bear knows what he’s doing here, not really subverting tropes, but having fun with them. Despite being a military-oriented book, there isn’t much fighting for awhile. We get marines (“Skyrines”) roaming around Mars and nearly suffocating a few times before Bear unveils the real reason for writing the book. A Muskie (original Mars colonist group named for Elon Musk) rescues a gaggle of airless characters and marches them off to a big, secret rock. This is where the fun begins.

We get the bait and switch here, as War Dogs turns into a Big Mysterious Object story. This is good news if you’re me, possibly disappointing for those who came for the explosions. I haven’t said a lot about the plot at this point because at least two thirds of the book is, not necessarily plotless, but utterly opaque. This is a first-person narrative from a grunt who only knows what he needs to know, and who is even more lost once inside the rock structure. Bear plays things close for the entire book though, thus my demand for a quality sequel. (It’s apparently in the works.) He only hints at deeper meanings – what is this giant thing and what is it for? Who are the Antagonists? (The bad aliens.) Why are they fighting? I need to know the answers to these questions.

I expect that the overall reception to War Dogs is mixed. Bear makes demands of the reader without offering much of a payoff. In the absence of a follow up, I can’t give an accurate assessment; things could go south in a hurry, or this could end up being a big deal. My guess is the latter. I enjoyed War Dogs and want to read further, but I won’t be surprised when others are irate.

Interview With Stephanie Saulter pt. 2

Interview With Stephanie Saulter pt. 2

With a wait of just 24 hours, I am very happy to post the second half of my conversation with Gemsigns author Stephanie Saulter. Please check the first part here. I promise this wasn’t just a clickbait move on my part – this interview more than doubled my usual post count and I wanted to keep it easily digestible. I hope everyone enjoys her comments as we dig in things more deeply. And, for those who haven’t yet given Gemsigns a read, please do. It’s well worth the time. Even better, the sequel, Binary, is available now in the UK and next year in the US.

When I read Gemsigns, it only took about five pages before I said to myself, “Oh hey, it’s the Jim Crow South!” I would imagine that this is a common reaction here in the Thirteen Colonies. I’ve seen you say that the European reception is different. What is it that people over there connect the book to?

What’s been really interesting about the reaction to Gemsigns is that every community that reads it relates it to some issue which is current and relevant for them. In America, as you say, it resonates with the black experience: slavery, emancipation, reconstruction as the backdrop to lingering inequalities centered on race. In Jamaica it’s much the same, although as I said earlier the post-emancipation path has been a bit different in the Caribbean, so the nuances that people pick up on are different.

(Although appearances remain very important in both. You made an amused comment in your review – and no, it does not make you a bad person – about the gems’ brightly-coloured, glowing hair. That and similar observations have been made several times; always, as far as I’m aware, by white folks. It’s worth pointing out that for black folks in these countries, hair is hugely political, hugely fraught. A black woman in Jamaica thanked me, with tears in her eyes, for making the point about how having the ‘wrong’ hair can condemn you. So even within the same national group you get these very different readings: white people read the hair thing as a clever or maybe not-so-clever SFnal device, black people read it as a forthright political statement.)

In Europe there is a degree of removal from the legacy of slavery; people do recognise it as an element of the metaphor, but the impact tends to be a bit less visceral. However what a lot of people here thought I was specifically commenting on was immigration, which has become a very big issue in the UK, and Europe more generally. There’s a narrative around people who are not ‘us’ taking ‘our’ jobs and living in ‘our’ houses and enjoying the benefits of ‘our’ welfare state. And the counter-narrative, of the data that shows immigrant groups tend to put more into the system than they take out. And the counter-counter-narrative, which both disputes the numbers and complains about changes to ‘the British way of life’ – as though that hasn’t been in constant flux since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. It is a very complex, very emotive topic, and it has parallels in the Gemsigns story as well.

I will admit to never having thought of hair that way. Mostly I just worry about it thinning. You seem to be a vocal participant in the equality discourse within the genre community. Here, many of the arguments and talking points mirror those in US politics. Do things have a different tone on your side of the pond?

They do, because questions of equality don’t generate quite the same kind of political friction here. Even our most right-wing politicians don’t tend to suggest that everyone isn’t or shouldn’t be treated equally, and when someone does let some horrible sentiment slip (as has happened) the public, the press and other politicians generally land on them like a ton of bricks. That doesn’t necessarily mean our society is intrinsically fairer – we talk a better game than we play – but I think there is more of a shared agreement, at least in public, that every citizen should have the same entitlements no matter who they are or what resources they possess (the differing attitudes between the UK/Europe and the US to the provision of health care is an example of the kind of consensus I mean).

What’s interesting at the moment is the way grass-roots arguments and issues drive political responses. There’ve been a number of really horrendous Twitter campaigns against women who’ve taken a stand on various issues; that becomes a big story in the mainstream media, and then politicians weigh in to condemn the trolls’ behaviour, and, increasingly, the ones who make threats are arrested and hauled off to the clink. Our politicians and public institutions seem pretty clear that freedom of speech does not include the freedom to threaten rape and murder.

From your perspective, are things getting better in the community? For every Hugo/Nebula Awards slate we have a Gamergate; it’s sometimes hard to think we’re making any progress. (For the record, I think that the book community is far ahead of other tribes in Greater Geekdom.)

It’s hard for me to judge, because I am so new to the community; until I sold the Gemsigns manuscript I didn’t know it existed. It was my agent who told me about conventions and genre fandom and suggested I go along to a few things and start to get acquainted. This was in 2012 – really, I’m that new. He thought I would find them welcoming and friendly and supportive, and he was absolutely correct. It’s a bit astonishing that I have become part of such a longstanding tradition so quickly, but I’m still climbing the learning curve.

So I guess I have two comments about how things are. First, the fact that I have been welcomed so readily gives the lie to the notion of an exclusionary, hide-bound, horribly conservative group who want to remain the center of their imaginary universe; but of course, I’m in the UK. Most of the horror stories I’ve heard are US-centric, so it may be that there is simply less of that conservative, exclusionary ethos on my side of the pond.

Second, I have bought and read and enjoyed and shared SFF throughout my life, and wrote a science fiction novel that I very quickly sold (and on the back of which a trilogy was commissioned), without ever knowing the tribe existed, let alone being a member. Don’t get me wrong: I’m glad now to know it exists, I’m very glad to have been admitted. But it’s important to maintain a sense of perspective. It’s a big, big world out there. One of the wonderful things about this year’s Worldcon in London was that it felt broad as well as deep; it understood its context within the larger culture. It wasn’t insular.

Finally, and in a non-spoiler way, how hard was it to sit on Aryel’s secret, just waiting to let everything out? I have this image of you fist-bumping yourself in relief once the moment finally came. (Great moment, by the way. Very memorable.)

Thank you! It actually wasn’t very hard – I knew I couldn’t drop that bomb too soon. If anything I was worried about the reveal itself: whether I could do it justice, whether I had the skill to craft it so that my readers would experience the emotional impact that I thought it warranted. In that sense the entire Aryel narrative was very tricky. I really get into my characters’ heads, but she is such an enigma. It’s hard to fathom the willpower, the sheer depth of character, that enable her to do what she does; until you know what she’s hiding, you can’t really understand how hard it is for her to hide it. I just thought to myself, If she can keep this secret, so can I.

Thank you, Stephanie, for the insightful comments.

Interview With Stephanie Saulter pt. 1

Interview With Stephanie Saulter pt. 1

I promised further explanation of just why I read Gemsigns when I did, and here it is. As part of Sci-Fi November, a mutual friend introduced me to Stephanie Saulter, Gemsign‘s author, after she graciously agreed to be interviewed. After reading and reviewing the book, I had plenty of things to ask Ms. Saulter. Luckily for me, it appears that our interests are mutual, as she provided lengthy, thought provoking answers to my questions. Lengthy enough that I can break this into two parts! Very exciting. I hope everyone enjoys reading our conversation as much as I did having it. A big thank you to Stephanie for taking the time to talk with me. And now, we’re off.

I suspect that many readers here are not yet familiar with Stephanie Saulter or Gemsigns. Can you give a primer for all the folks out there who are going to buy your books for the first time after reading this interview?

Hmm, no pressure then. Let’s see …

Gemsigns is the first book of the ®Evolution trilogy. It’s set in the near-ish future, and has been mis-described as a dystopia: it actually takes place just as a period of intense repression of a genetically modified minority, the gems, has come to an end. They have not been granted legal equality though, and there are huge disputes within the norm community about whether they are really human, and huge pressure from the gemtech corporations that engineered and owned them, and for whom their emancipation represents a catastrophic loss of assets. The background to the action is one of massive social and economic upheaval.

The story centers on a scientist, Eli Walker, who is trying to come to an objective, reasoned view of what gems are and how the law should treat them. That makes him a target for everyone else’s manipulations. Zavcka Klist is the gemtech executive who wants to roll things back to the way they were, but also has evidence of a very real threat the gems might pose. Aryel Morningstar is their charismatic leader, who seems to both contradict and confirm all the fears norms have of gems. Gaela is a gem whose engineered ability makes her extraordinarily powerful and valuable, even though all she wants is to live and work and raise her son in peace and safety. That child, Gabriel may prove to be the most dangerous of all. Against this backdrop are rumours of gem violence and perversion; the fears and resentment of the norm majority; media scaremongering; political uncertainty; and the godgangs, religious fundamentalists who believe that all gems should be destroyed. Gemsigns takes place over a crucial week in which all of these forces come together. It’s a thriller. There are twists and turns and highs and lows and reveals and deceptions and chases and sleights of hand. People get hurt; some may not make it.

However, and in spite of the advice I got from a neighbour when I was moaning about the difficulty of bringing everything to a satisfactory conclusion, everyone does not die at the end. This turned out to be a good call on my part, as it meant I could write more books following these characters and their story. Binary is already out in the UK, and will be published in the US in 2015. The third book, Regeneration, will hit your shores in 2016.

As for me … I’m the kind of person who comes up with layered, twisty stories involving genetics and information technology and social dynamics and business ethics and what it means to be human. There’s more below if you can stand it.

Here’s a softball to start (I hope). Gemsigns is a book about discrimination in a post-apocalypse setting. Did you come up with the apocalypse first and write a story about it? Or was the apocalypse a necessary background to explain the creation of Gems?

Closer to the latter, although it’s not quite such a linear process; things developed in parallel. It started with a very powerful mental and emotional image of a violent confrontation. I knew that moment was what the story was ultimately all about, but I had to work backwards to understand how the moment came to be. There was a woman with a small child on the one hand, and they were in mortal danger from a group of adults. I felt like I had been handed a puzzle: why would this group of apparently far more powerful people have such fear and hatred for this tiny woman and tiny child? What could they possibly have done? Was it about what they’d done, or who they were? Who were they? What was this power dynamic, this imbalance, really about? I puzzled over it for a long time … years, in fact. And many other things that I was thinking and speculating about, to do with technology and progress and culture, went into the explanation I built for myself of who they were, and who the other people were, and what had led them to that place.

I confess that themes of equality, be it racial, gender, or anything else, didn’t resonate with me until I moved to Asia and tried out life as a minority. Why did you choose this for your first book? Was there a similar watershed experience for you or has this always been a part of your life?

This is going to sound bizarre, but it was only as I wrote the novel that I became consciously aware of it as a story of inequality and prejudice and the way different communities try to negotiate their settlements with each other. That’s probably because there’s never been a time when those issues did not fundamentally inform my life; they are so intrinsic to my understanding of the world that framing things in those terms is natural for me. It’s like the structural elements of a building – you don’t generally see or think about them, but they affect everything about the shape and look and feel and function of the building itself.

I’m a Jamaican woman of mixed ethnic heritage. Because I’m very light-skinned, and a product of the more affluent and educated middle-classes in my birth country, I felt what it was to be in a minority growing up; but a privileged minority. Then I went to the US to go to university in the 80s, and discovered what it was to be part of a different kind of minority: for once I didn’t stand out on account of my appearance, but my accent marked me as foreign, I was looked at askance for identifying as mixed-race instead of allowing myself to pass for white, I had to deal with assumptions that I could only have gotten into my elite university because of affirmative action. I was accepted into the small African-American community there, and both in college and subsequently I learned a lot about the black and mixed-race experience in the US, which has both commonalities with and huge points of departure from those legacies in the Caribbean.

Then I moved to London in the early 2000s, which introduced me to yet more cultural perspectives on the minority experience, diversity and immigration. I was working on urban regeneration projects, among other things, and for the first time dealing in a very intimate way with poor white working-class communities who have been really left behind by the shifts away from manufacturing and mining, and towards the information, finance and retail sectors. You have the scenario of brown and black children of first and second-generation immigrants often doing better academically and going into the professions, while the children of the white folks who initially looked down on them have ended up on a lower rung of the attainment ladder.

The takeaway lesson from all of those experiences is that ‘equality’ as a concept is very simple in principle, but hugely complex in practice. I think we can talk about the complexity without undermining the principle, and I think we should.

Stay tuned for part two, where Stephanie digs deeper into questions about the book, the SF community, and equality concerns across two continents.


Stephanie Saulter

I read a review of Gemsigns back in the spring, leaving a comment that the heirarchy-equality themed book sounded like an interesting companion to CJ Cherryh’s Cyteen, which I had recently finished. I then forgot that I had put the book on my TBR pile until gently prompted by a friend some weeks ago, for reasons that will become clear later in the month. It is indeed a book about discrimination issues, but it is very different than Cyteen. It’s also every bit as good as others are claiming, and seems particularly relevant right now.

To be honest, I had a hard time getting through this one. It’s not Saulter’s fault at all – the book is compelling, the characters are alive and engaging, and the questions at the core of the book are handled with considerably more grace and sophistication than one might expect. I think it’s just my timing. Gamergate is marching on, in all its puerile, adolescent rage. (If one is unaware of Gamergate, one should count oneself lucky and move on with a happier life.) That Anita Sarkeesian talk that got canceled because police couldn’t be bothered to ensure her and her audience’s safety? That was at my school. (And forever a stain on Aggie-dom worldwide.) It may just be that I am more sensitive now to discrimination issues than I once was, living in a multi-ethnic family. Whatever the reason, many passages were bracing enough that I had to step back and read some Hard SF to settle my soul. I always came back to Gemsigns though, because it was worth the time invested.

So, plot. Gemsigns is two things, one more than the other. It is a post-apocalypse (of sorts) story, and it is a story about two groups of humanity trying to figure out a way to get along. The former is toned down a bit, mostly just setting the backstory for the latter. To Saulter’s undying credit, there is a reason for the sorta-apocalypse. We aren’t just dropped in a story with, “After everything went wrong…” and marched on from there with no description of what, exactly, did go wrong. Mostly though, Saulter uses this to explain why we came up with genetically modified people (Gems), since they are the focus of the story. (In short, everyone died, we needed labor, Gems were born. Now they are not slaves, but still having a rough go of it.) People being what they are, public acceptance of Gems is spotty at best. A major conference to determine what to do with Gems, how to handle their rights, and how to defuse conflicts acts as the center of the book.

Gemsigns is fairly predictable, at least in a general sense. Some of this is a result of adherence to SF tropes, some of this is because until people stop being people, we’re going to see the same conflicts over and over. It was no surprise to me that the bad guys in a near-future SF are big businesses and religious fringe groups. Those are kind of the go-to villains now that the Commies are gone. It depresses me a bit as an employee of a giant company and member of an organized religion that this is so, but I can also understand why. Very little separates either in real life from, say, launching a crusade or poisoning a town. Saulter is even-handed enough to add good church people as well, though I don’t remember any particularly sympathetic corporations. In terms of people, we know that Gems and unmodified humans are going to fight because of course they are. We can’t get along with other genders, other colors, other religions, or other anything. In some countries, certain groups are singled out for hate just because we seem to need to hate something, no matter how identical they may be to ourselves. None of the fights, escalations, justifications, or results surprised me in Gemsigns. Again, it’s depressing, but we haven’t found a way around it yet.

The final genius of the book is Saulter stepping around convention and inevitability. Nowhere is this more noticeable than the end, which of course I won’t spoil here. I could see where things were headed about ten pages in advance, but was blind to the twist before that. Even guessing the surprise that a certain character would spring on everyone in advance didn’t lessen the impact. It was a beautiful and inspiring moment, both inside the story’s world and to the reader. The truth about another key character played into the theme nicely, enhancing the book’s message. I suppose in hindsight that there was a bit of moustachio twirling going on among the bad people, but overall, Gemsigns is uplifting and hopeful.

I am a bad person, but I must confess that the addition of brightly colored hair to mark the Gems made me picture them all as those little troll dolls.

Trolls or not, Gemsigns is one of the better books I’ve read this year. It takes on a tough subject, treats it with honesty, and comes out making the reader feel better about things. Saulter also keeps the heavy stuff within the context of the world she has created, subordinating the message to the needs of the story. It’s all very impressive and I’m looking forward to seeing where this story goes next.