The Bactra Review: Occasional and eclectic book reviews by Cosma Shalizi   71


by Greg Bear

New York: Tor, 1997

De nos fabula

In 1990, Greg Bear wrote Queen of Angels, an excellent novel about crime, punishment, the nature of consciousness, voodoo, awful Third World military dictatorships, neuropsychiatry and temp agencies; also the hoopla surrounding the arrival of the year 2048, the ``binary millennium.'' It was serious and exciting and successful on all counts; it's a tribute to Bear's basic tough-mindedness and competence as an author that, despite very plainly having assimilated a lot of Jung, he used it and not the other way around.

/ (pronounced ``Slant'') is a sequel of sorts to Queen of Angels, set in the same world a few years further along, with some of the same characters --- the policewoman Mary Choi, Martin Burke the psychotherapist, Jill the artificial intelligence, all trying to put their lives back together after the shocks of the previous book. But there are many other characters, and Choi, Burke and Jill account for at most half of the entangled narrative threads of /, all of which come together at a cryogenic necropolis in the remote, isolationist and retrograde backwater of Green Idaho, called (Jung again) Omphalos. Like Queen of Angels it fuses a novel of action with a novel of ideas: I like the action better this time, and the intellectual part veers off in a very different direction.

In this world (which is probably also that of Bear's Heads and Moving Mars), truly effective, neurological psychotherapy, called simply ``therapy,'' based on micromechanical and chemical intervention in the limbic system, is not only wide-spread but is very nearly mandatory for all but ``high naturals.'' At the most superficial level, / is a stay-up-til-you-finish thriller about a nefarious conspiracy provoking an epidemic break-down in this therapy. (Most of the characters don't realize this, but the reader does, by about page fifty, so that's not a spoiler.) There's virtual reality, high-tech weaponry, conspirators plotting in the shadows, and a really gruesome murder mystery (well, it squicked me at any rate), in short, all the things which make airport or supermarket novels enjoyable: and in fact / showed up at my supermarket as soon as it came out in paperback.

A deeper look shows us that the Greg Bear who destroyed the Earth while humanity watched helplessly in Forge of God, the man who wrote that we now live in a world so monstrous it goes past sin into necessity, is alive and well and living outside Seattle. For instance: the cheap and stock response to the idea of something like therapy is to protest that it would snuff out some ``essential human spark.'' Bear will have nothing to do with such cliches and works with the assumption that it would genuinely make people better. If Bear had written / earlier in his career, it would've been dominated by a single Big Idea like that one. Now he's juggling a host of related Big Ideas at once, while balancing a gripping plot on his nose: family, forced-fed progress and its equally stultifying rejection, neuropsychiatry, conservative hypocrisy, emergent computation, sex, the future of the information economy, bacterial conjugation, our insatiable thirst for fiction, biotechnology and nanotechnology, our preference for entertainment over reality, serious bodily transformations, lust for power, technolibertarian idiocy, the path from Ayn Rand to de Sade. Readers should perhaps be warned that almost the first thing they'll encounter is a set piece on the subject which squats at the confluence of most of these themes, namely pornography. It's extremely funny and, as a view from inside the head of a porn actress who was once ``heat made flesh,'' ultimately rather melancholy.

Thirty years ago now, the late, great John Brunner wrote a novel called Stand on Zanzibar, a high point in the tradition of ``if this goes on...'' science fiction. Such works are, inevitably, at least as much about the present as about the future, at least as much works of social criticism as of speculation, and Brunner did a superb job of blending them, cutting back and forth between half-a-dozen intersecting story-lines and documents and artifacts from his future, including copious quotations from the works of Chad C. Mulligan, itinerant sociologist and author of one of the best-titled books ever, You're an Ignorant Idiot. It was a grim and compelling vision of a world going to Hell, not in hand-basket but a supertanker. Things haven't turned out quite like Brunner projected --- we already have his ``muckers,'' only we say they've ``gone postal,'' and commercial TV is almost as debased as he expected; recreational sabotage isn't quite at the levels he predicted (even counting computer viruses), more because we have loony politics instead --- but give us time. In short, it is about the only document from its time about the future which inspires horrified fascination, rather than smirks or cringing vicarious embarrassment for its authors.

I go on at such length about Stand on Zanzibar because / is, quite plainly, aiming for the same niche in our own day. There's the same tangle of (at least) half-a-dozen inter-twined narrative strands, the same jumping back and forth between narrative and documents from the future, the invented vernacular vocabulary, the stand-in for the voice of the author, or perhaps the chorus (here an on-line column called Alive Contains a Lie by one ``Kiss of X'': imagine a cross between Suck and a really savage advice-to-the-lovelorn column), above all, the same remorseless extrapolation of the direction we're headed, the same attack on our cant and illusions. Bear is writing about the present in its nastier and all-too-human manifestations, and he knows it:

We worship the nineteen-eighties and nineteen-nineties. They were among the most selfish and self-absorbed decades in American history. Never before has a nation so rich and with such a high standard of living exhibited such childish pique and disregard for reality. Ignorant of politics, history, and even the rules of basic human interaction, millions sought anonymity and isolation from their neighbors. Their sexual and social hypocrisy was almost unparalleled, and their sense of social responsibility ended at family boundaries, if they extended that far. Grumbling, complaining, seeking sudden advantage without providing requisite value...
It's a miracle we survived. But survive we did...
To slavishly worship those who most resemble us today. [p. 80; Bear's ellipses]

It would be easy to let this collapse into a simple social satire, or a mere Frankenstein, things-we-are-not-meant-to-tamper-with story. Like Brunner before him, Bear is, as I said, too smart, too tough-minded, and too good a writer to let either happen. We can tamper with whatever we like, and there will be consequences, but there's no one and no thing to punish us: Tyche and Anake, not Nemesis and the Erinyes, are the true goddesses of our world. I've said before that the great science-fictional question is ``What are we to make of ourselves?'' Bear is tackling it as literally as it deserves, though still very near the beginning of --- whatever it is that we're doing.

When Bear's hot, he succeeds on more levels than most novelists attempt; nobody is writing better science fiction, maybe not better fiction period. In / he is heat made flesh.

396 pp.
The Information Society / Science fiction
Currently in print as a hardback, US$24.95, ISBN 0-312-85517-6, and as a paperback, US$6.99, ISBN 0-312-52482-9, LoC PS3552 E157 S55 1997
27 January 1999