When looking for something off the beaten path, I can usually count on Angry Robot Books to deliver. They put out a lot of supernatural and/or urban fantasy, but also publish authors like Lavie Tidhar and Aliette de Bodard. I saw Debris first in their eARCs, then later at the library, and something about it piqued my curiosity. It promised to be urban science fantasy, with the potential to rise above cliché.
Immediate kudos go to Anderton for her world building. While there were noticeable echoes of other similar books, she managed to keep things fresh. The first place I thought of was New Crobuzon (China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station), though Movac-Under-Keeper is less grotesque. It also, while possessed of a certain European air, seems less Dickensian-ly British than a lot of the steampunk genre. I actually wouldn’t call Debris steampunk anyway, since a form of engineering magic is at the core of the story rather than boilers or Babbage computing machines. It is a part, however, of the ever growing subgenre of Industrial Revolution Fantasy, with its polluted cities, smoking factories, and Victorian technology. I’m guessing this subgenre was kicked off by Marxists writing fantasy wherein the protagonists fight for the means of production. (I’m only partially facetious with this description.)
This is not to say that Anderton is a Marxist, or at least not to the extent that Mieville, for example, or Eric Flint is. There is a standard level of hand wringing over plight of the huddled masses, the usual oppression from above, and even an oblique indictment of that portion of the middle class who spends too much energy maintaining their lifestyles to notice the suffering going on elsewhere. Nobody really pontificates or declaims though, which is probably just as well. As it is, I spent the first 100 pages or so fearing that this would be another “hero(ine) falls from position of wealth and power, discovers true self in poverty” story. Fortunately, it is not. That particular plot chestnut reached its pinnacle in Pohl and Kornbluth’s Space Merchants and doesn’t need to be touched again until somebody can dethrone that classic. Anderton wisely realizes that more fun is to be had elsewhere and steps onto a more interesting path.
No sooner did I mention the world building than things moved off in another direction. Returning, let’s look a bit more at what’s going on. Tanyana, our plucky heroine, is one who controls “pions.” Pions are all purpose building blocks, the electricity, cement, bytes, steam, and steel of her world. They are molded into buildings, sent throughout the city as power, and turned into almost computer-like objects. Not far into the story, an “accident” causes Tanyana to lose her control of pions and instead makes her into a collector, one who can see “debris.” Debris are the waste products of pion usage and must be cleaned up lest they overwhelm the system and shut down the city. Debris collectors are necessary outcasts, similar to the night soil collectors of Olde Japan. (Readers not familiar with night soil are welcome to google it. Let’s just say that I wouldn’t hang out with someone who spent all night surrounded by it either.) Needless to say, Tanyana’s life changes in many unpleasant ways.
I enjoyed Anderton’s creation. The pion-debris concept provides fertile ground for storytelling and broad flexibility for plot use. Need a 50 story building? Why not? Dingy, polluted ghetto? No problem. Debit cards? Sure. Crazy suits that turn arms into swords and are attached to bone ala the X-men’s Wolverine? In a proverbial jiffy. Her city is also well thought out, with its river, infrastructure and transportation systems, and mix of prosperous neighborhoods and slums. Two reviews I read take opposing views of the completeness of the city, betraying the critics’ respective areas of expertise: Here is a glowing portrait of the world, while this one wonders at the holes in Movac’s political economy. It takes a certain brain to notice and point out flaws in a fantasy world’s government or economic system; unfortunately, I have one. Still, there’s nothing particularly glaring here and most will be satisfied and engaged by the world. Everything beyond the city and the history behind Movac’s present are broadly hinted at, but the details have been left to later books to explore.
And later books there will be. The sequel is slated for this coming summer (2012) and Anderton has left, if not a cliffhanger, plenty of questions unresolved at the end of her first book. This is, I suppose, where my biggest quibbles with the book lie. The story starts out with a literal bang, quickly throwing Tanyana into the world of debris collection. It then feints down the narrative path already mentioned, before correcting itself and heading into conspiracy thriller territory. New plot lines emerge, some romance complications show up, and pretty soon the conspiracy is somewhat abandoned for crises, shadowy (and ineffective) resistance movements, and a prophecy. (?) Finally, near the end, some attempt is made at tying all the threads together, but it’s pretty obvious that we’re going to have to take Anderton at her word and settle for the inconclusive conclusion of the first book. Debris lacks a bit of grace at the end, but I will have to wait for the follow-up to pass full judgment on whether Anderton has things under control, or is spinning tales just slightly beyond her reach.
That said, the book was entertaining and original. Less flowery and demanding than Mieville, fewer brass knobs and goggles than steampunk, less smoggy London than Tidhar, and far more creative than stock fantasy, Debris is a good change of pace for anyone who’s had enough of broadswords or starships. It has the potential to open up into a rare, truly unique world, if Anderton can keep all of her juggling balls in the air through the sequels. Even if the series as a whole isn’t everything it could be, it will still be a worthwhile place to visit.
Rating: Hmm, how about Napoli? This is a team that fell from the highest of heights, albeit gradually, and is slowly working its way back to the top. The city is also famous for its garbage collection, or the lack thereof.