Carve the Sky

Carve the Sky
Alexander Jablokov

Today’s post, the last of my 2013 SF Experience efforts, is a bit of a hidden gem. I first read Jablokov several years ago when I came across a random short story about romance among extreme body builders, the title of which I have since forgotten. However, the combination of near future snark, crazy ideas I would never think of (biceps sculpted like mountain ranges?), and underlying humanity stayed with me enough that when I saw his debut novel at a book sale recently, I snapped it up. Carve the Sky was published in 1991, unbeknownst to me despite being in the heat of my initial SF reading phase. It was followed by a couple of other novels, and then by a long break. Perusing the interwebs for info on the man, I see that he has recently published another novel, the first, he says, in about ten years.

I came into this without any expectations; naturally I was completely surprised. The book is an art thriller. It is another Solar System tale. Concerned as it is with a mystery surrounding a work of art, with artists in general, and to a lesser extent with religion, the easy comparison is with Jack McDevitt’s Alex Benedict novels, but with 26% more swashbuckling. More than those however, Carve the Sky feels a bit like a space-based Arturo Perez-Riverte novel. There is another, wilder, relationship I will draw later in the review, but for now we will stick to the basics. In short, there is a mysterious sculpture, multiple factions chasing after it, and a shocking answer behind all the questions.

Since I wasn’t paying total attention going into this book, it took me a few pages to catch on to the setting. Taking stock of my recent reading tallies up five books from 2012 that are Solar System exclusive (2312, Existence, Blue Remembered Earth, Caliban’s War, The Fractal Prince), plus another series from the mid 2000s (Metaplanetary). Comparing these to Carve the Sky yielded the surprising observation that, despite being over twenty years old, Jablokov’s book didn’t feel any older than the rest. Through a variety of artifices, he managed to dodge obsolescence almost completely. Considering that in 1991, Communism was still winding down, Terminator 2 was the gold standard for special effects, and Civilization was a new release, I would say that Carve the Sky has held up remarkably well.

Thinking about it later though, one thing did surprise me: the complete lack of cyberpunk. There is no internet, no hacking, no Singularity, or any of the technology that we take for granted now. On the lone occasion that characters need to stay in touch over long distances, they use the equivalent of phone booths. Still, the story is constructed in such a way that this isn’t very noticeable. Also missing is the vaguely anti-big corporation feel that cyberpunk codified into much of SF. There is, on the other hand, an echo of the Mechanist-Shaper schism that drives the de rigueur conflict between the inner and outer system. There is also an Earth recovering from decades (centuries?) of war and neglect, anarchic freeports in the asteroids, inscrutable religions, and crazy artists. The details differ somewhat from SF published Right Now, but many of the concepts are similar. I am uncertain if Jablokov was intentionally rejecting cyberpunk when he wrote Carve the Sky, or if it was still too early for cyberpunk tropes to have fully colonized mainstream SF. (I suspect the latter, for no good reason except that it doesn’t seem important. It’s just something that occurred to me later, probably in the context of a completely unrelated conversation.)

For me, the characters are what really shines in this book. Our erstwhile hero is both a discerning art curator and a special agent. He has a past, not troubled exactly, but eventful. The people in his orbit are a complicated bunch, all tied up hopelessly in a system-wide political near-crisis. The sculptors are suitably neurotic, the aristocrats properly feudal, and the church people ascetic and mystical. Oddly enough, the story taken as a whole reminded me of nothing so much as a Hannu Rajaniemi novel. The differences between the two are obvious, but something about Jablokov’s daring stylistic writing and the way he cloaks the familiar geography in a wholly alien, but completely human society makes Carving the Sky feel like an ancestor to The Quantum Thief. I could be totally in left field here, but I call them as I see them.

I wonder if Jablokov would have benefited, as Rajaniemi has, from having an internet fandom. This feels like the kind of book that would have generated frantic buzz among the community, had the community not been limited to snail mail and annual conventions. Instead, it remains under the radar and under appreciated. Or if it is appreciated, I haven’t heard about it, which may amount to the same thing. Carve the Sky is a surprising and engaging read. Jablokov deserves a place closer to the center of SF discourse; I wonder if his newer books will gain that place for him.

Rating: I’m wracking my brain for a suitable underrated footballer, preferably from Eastern Europe. I will gladly accept nominations in the comments.
Edit: Bulgaria ’94 has been suggested. I like the idea, but hope Jablokov’s new books fare better than Bulgaria did against Italy and Sweden.