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The Library of Babel: A Book Log

"This much is already known: for every sensible line of straightforward statement, there are leagues of senseless cacophonies, verbal jumbles and incoherences." -- Jorge Luis Borges

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Competent Neo-Heinlein

The post title is my two-word review of Elizabeth Bear's debut trilogy, Hammered, Scardown and Worldwired (OK, one of the words is a hyphenated neologism-- deal with it). These get thrown into a single entry both because I have a huge backlog, and also because they're really one book. In fact, I strongly recommend not starting the first one without having the first one close to hand.

The books follow the adventures of Genevieve ("Jenny") Casey, a veteran of the Canadian military witha prosthetic arm who has retired to Hartford to try to forget about the past. Some malfunctions of the arm lead her to seek medical attention, and she finds herself drawn back into a world of violence, corruption, and intrigue at the highest levels of world government. Before the whole thing is done, she's got a government conspiracy to unravel, an attempt at genocide to thwart, an ecological catastrophe to avert, and not one but two alien races to contact. There's more than enough plot here for three books.

I picked these up because they were enthusiastically recommended by John Scalzi, and it's not hard to see why. Like his Old Man's War, this is very much a book in the Heinlein tradition. The characters are smart and competent, and successful as a result, the science elements are essential to the plot, and the plotting is crisp and fast.

Unfortunately, where Scalzi mostly manages to avoid the pitfalls of bad Heinlein, Bear... doesn't. The characters are just a little too good (one catastrophe is averted because a member of an evil conspiracy within the government has a change of heart after a conversation with the daughter of one of the protagonists), the major characters are a little too rational, and there's a little too much speechifying. There's even a self-aware computer pulling the strings, and a love triangle plot that doesn't seem to serve any purpose other than as a plug for polyamory.

There's some good stuff here, don't get me wrong. All the problems I mention are obvious within the first volume, and I bought and read the next two all the same. At the same time, though, it triggers a lot of the same reactions as a lot of the less enjoyable aspects of Heinlein's books, though the politics are less annoying. Crisp writing and a fast-moving plot will cover a lot of sins, though, and these were fun to read in a just-this-side-of-Baen kind of way.

(One other warning: if you're the sort of reader who's bothered by stuff like Daniel Keys Moran making the French the masters of the world government, you don't even want to think about the future history here, in which Canada ends up ruling the free world...)

Posted at 4:49 PM | link |
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[ hide comments ]

"I strongly recommend not starting the first one without having the first one close to hand"

That seems like good, if generally unnecessary, advice.

Mike Kozlowski, 02.04.2006, 6:44pm | permalink

Your review has been reviewed, sort of.

greythistle, 02.07.2006, 12:56am | permalink

In which, once again, we learn that it's not really a good idea to respond to negative-ish reviews.

Mike Kozlowski, 02.08.2006, 12:59am | permalink

It's worth noting that a lot of people clearly liked this series--Elizabeth Bear won the 2005 Campbell Award for Best New Writer over two other authors I personally prefer (Steph Swainston [The Year of Our War] and K.J. Bishop [The Etched City]).

I thought that the whole "aging female war veteran crippled by the medical procedures that keep her alive, on the run" thing was done better by Kristine Smith. Perhaps I was just reading more into the setup than was there, but I was a bit nonplussed when what I saw as the "on the run from the establishment" setup turned out to be more "stopped sending Christmas cards and didn't leave a forwarding address".

The thriller/police procedural plotline seemed entirely tacked on; I'm sure it had some significance in the grand scope of the series, but by the end of the first book (which was as much as I was willing to read), it really didn't seem to have mattered.

The dialogue (presumably to prove it's Canadian) is scattered with untranslated French, sometimes entire sections of (to me) unintelligible dialogue, including one cringe-inducing love scene.

Worst of all, as I'm not a fan of half-books, the book doesn't so much end as run out of pages, with the stopping point coming when the various parts of the book start gelling, and what I had seen in the first book wasn't enough for me to want to pick up any sequels.

Brian Gibbons, 02.09.2006, 3:16pm | permalink

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