Queen City Jazz
Kathleen Ann Goonan
Queen City Jazz is a difficult, uncompromising book. Goonan refuses to make things easy for the reader, above and beyond the usual Hard SF hurdles. Keeping up with Goonan requires a healthy knowledge of nanotech, bees, and jazz, with lesser amounts of Cincinnati, American literature, baseball, and Shakers. Even if the reader is up on all of these, details of the plot are deliberately obscured, characters mislead the protagonist, the history of the nano ravaged world is vague, and the final point of the story isn’t clear until the very end. Whether or not the reward justifies the work is a hard call to make. I thought it worthwhile, but I may be in the minority.
Like many first novels, this one has an “everything but the kitchen sink” feel to it. Goonan has created a complicated and detailed world, then stuffed it with a wild array of characters and technology. She could have stopped at nanotech, or even at the nanotech derived plague that both transformed the cities and depopulated the country, but kept going. Verity, the protagonist, starts off in a Neo-Shaker community that came together in response to the plagues, but is off before long into the transformed, unrecognizable cities. Her ultimate destination, Cincinnati, is full of towering, graceful skyscrapers, each with a gigantic flower on top and serviced by an army of cow-sized, nanotech bees. Survivors of the nanotech craziness live in shanty towns in the shadow of the city, while the residents of the city itself might be human, or might not.
Are we all keeping up so far? The vertigo is just beginning. Verity discovers her destiny, pre-nano flashbacks start to explain the semi-mad, vaguely incestuous beginnings of the nano-plagues, and everyone plays jazz or baseball. Goonan maintains a voice that manages cold science and dreamy intoxication, often at the same time. I have read a lot of science fiction and know a lot of plot paths, but this one kept me off-balance almost the entire time. I confess to having no idea, through probably 450 pages, of where things were going, what would happen, or how Verity was going to become whatever it is she was supposed to become. Though certainly a credit to the author’s creativity, not everyone will appreciate being bewildered for so long. I think we can all agree, though, that seeing Ernest Hemingway rejected for a spot on the recreated Cincinnati Reds due to arrogant jerkiness is worth the price of admission.
Long time readers might (correctly) guess that the jazz bit of Queen City Jazz is my favorite part. Goonan clearly knows her stuff. The conversations between musicians ring true, the descriptions of their playing reflect the way I feel when I play, and the strange reincarnations of past masters are appropriate. Goonan must know that Sphere, the alto sax player who guides Verity through the city, shares a name with Thelonious Monk, though they have little in common. (Monk’s middle name was Sphere, but Monk was, in (I think) Dexter Gordon’s tastefully understated words, “Not exactly the cat next door.”) My only real nitpick is that jazz seems to stop about 1965 in the book. Keeping things with the classics does give the book a more timeless feel, but also has a “you kids get off my lawn” vibe with the implication that good music died with John Coltrane. To be fair, I think that this was an editorial decision in line with the first observation, more than a flag planted by the second.
Trying to put this all together, Queen City Jazz has solid world building, a singular premise and vision, and excellent prose on one hand. On the other, it is dense and unforgiving, likely leaving many readers with no idea what is going on for long stretches. If people tell me that they just didn’t get it, or bounced hard within the first hundred pages or so, I will understand. Still, there are more books in the series, so somebody thought this was worth the trouble. I have a built in tolerance for the worst excesses of Hard SF (not present here anyway), heavy reading, and all around cryptic stuff, so I muscled through alright. In fact, when they payoff finally came, I was glad that I persevered. I can give that level of recommendation, but will not be surprised if others disagree. I will report back later, once I have delved further into Goonan’s world, with a verdict on the broader implications of the book.
Rating: A tense, 0-0 draw in the preliminary round. Not for everyone, but a certain aesthetic pleasure can be derived from the tactical battles unfolding.