It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


Women in sf reading challenge #8: Spin State, Chris Moriarty

There are those who believe science fiction is a predominantly pessimistic genre, and certainly many of the futures that sf novels posit can hardly be called utopias. Of course, much of this depends upon your personal politics – a neoliberal fantasy, for instance, would likely appeal to a plutocrat, or to someone so deluded they think they actually stand a chance of becoming one. Yet such futures are common in science fiction, and often the protagonist – ie, the character with whom the reader is asked to identify – is a victim of this society, a person whose agency does not stretch much beyond what they can actually grasp with two hands. Frequently too they are fighting on two fronts: both against the enemy, and against those for whom they are ostensibly fighting.

Personally, I don’t think such futures are either desirable or inevitable, nor do I think they’re especially necessary for dramatic purposes. Perhaps it’s a peculiarly US perspective, that general antipathy towards anything smacking of state or state apparatus, whereby, by definition, a protagonist must battle their own government as much as they fight the enemies of their nation.

Spin State by Chris Moriarty is a case in point. It was my August read for this year’s reading challenge (see here), and, above caveats aside, I found it an intriguing blend of hard sf, cyberpunk, coal mining and quantum physics.

Catherine Li is a soldier for the UN; she is also a genetic construct. She has hidden the latter fact, claiming only descent from a genetic construct grandmother, otherwise she would not be able to serve in the UN military. After a raid on a secret Syndicates laboratory goes slightly wrong, Li is assigned to Compson’s World to look into the death of genius physicist Hannah Sharifi. Shortly after her death, an encrypted file was sent by Sharifi to UNSec, the UN’s military. Li’s commanding officer wants her to find the private key to the file – Sharifi was working on a way to artificially culture Bose-Einstein condensate, and if she discovered a means of doing so it would have profound effects on the balance of power between the UN and the Syndicates.

In the future of Spin State, Earth has spread out to a number of exoplanets, mostly using STL transport. However, by the use of quantum entanglement, information can be sent FTL. As can some people – most typically UNSec soldiers. But this process requires Bose-Einstein condensate, a mineral with pre-entangled qubits. There is also a side effect to such FTL travel: decoherence. Memories must be backed up or they disappear. And for soldiers, those memories are often edited to remove sensitive or classified information.

There is one source of naturally-occurring condensate: Compson’s World. Where Sharifi was running her experiment. And, incidentally, Li’s home world. But more than that: like Li, Sharifi is a genetic construct – in fact, they are clones from the same template. On arrival at the station in orbit about Compson’s world, Li immediately finds herself thrown into the middle of what appears to be a corrupt satrapy. The importance of the condensate means Compson’s World is entirely corporate-owned, and its workers are treated like the meanest of slaves. Because harvesting the condensate is a dangerous and dirty job: it has to be dug out of coal seams in deep underground mines.

It was in a chamber in one of the mines that Sharifi had been performing her mysterious experiment. She also died nearby. Though her death has been ruled an accident, Li soon learns it was murder. But what exactly was the physicist doing in the chamber in the mine, why would that lead to her murder, and what is in the encrypted file sent to UNSec?

Spin State is an unholy mixture of cyberspace, military sf, murder-mystery and coal-mining. And I use the term “unholy” approvingly. That mix shouldn’t work, but it does. Extremely well, in fact. Perhaps the big secret driving the mystery element of the plot is not difficult to guess, but Moriarty loads up her story with more than enough in the other areas. At one point, there is a covert infiltration by Li of Alba, UNSec’s headquarters in orbit about Earth. There is the jockeying for power and control ofthe mines amongst the various factions on Compson’s World. There’s the Cold War between the UN and the Syndicates. There’s Li’s relationship with the AI, Cohen. And there’s Li’s own somewhat corrupted identity, built upon redacted and lost and rewritten memories. Also many of the population of Compson’s World are ex-IRA and have fought in the (re-ignited?) Troubles.

There is as much going on in the universe of Spin State as there is in the story. The novel opens shortly after the UN defeated its enemies, the Syndicates. Li was instrumental in this victory during fighting on the Syndicate world of Gilead. But those memories have been redacted, so she’s not entirely sure what she did to become a decorated hero. The Syndicates, worlds populated entirely by genetic constructs, each of whom are treated as little more than components in a vast system, sounds like a place worth exploring, but in
Spin State they are little more than ersatz Commies in the Cold War of the novel’s universe.

Then there are the AIs, which are not just hugely-sophisticated and sentient computer programs but networks of AIs, some of which are only semi-sentient and some of which have been added in what were effectively hostile take-overs. These AIs live in the novel’s version of cyberspace, streamspace (also referred to as the spinstream), an interstellar FTL network. I’ve never been convinced by cyberspace as a sf trope – it was built upon a computing metaphor, and the link between it and its operations and implementation has never struck me as especially plausible. In Spin State, Moriarty uses a full-on VR-style cyberspace and, Matrix-like, Li often “dives into the numbers” beneath the actual metaphor.

But these are minor quibbles. Spin State is a novel dense with ideas, dense with plot. Li is an engagingly cynical heroine, although perhaps a little too often she is blown hither and thither by the machinations of more powerful players. Not to mention she is sometimes a little too slow on the uptake. Compson’s World is a nasty place, and the coal-mining aspect is handled extremely well (although the industry as described is surprisingly crude, given that the novel is set more than a century hence). I really liked the idea of the Syndicates, and thought they were worth exploring more. The AIs I found less convincing, and the concpet of “shunts”, by which AIs “borrow” the bodies of humans, felt a little 1980s to me. I also was very much intrigued by the UNSec practice of redacting the memories of its soldiers. There is, I think, more than one novel there in that concept alone. It’s certainly to Moriarty’s credit that she’s filled a single novel with several novels-worth of ideas.

And speaking of Moriarty… There are no clues to the writer’s gender anywhere on the Bantam trade paperback I read. Even the “About the Author” at the end is careful not to use any pronouns in reference to the writer. But was disguising the author’s gender enough? The main character in the novel is female, and there are anecdotes a-plenty about editors telling writers that female protagonists do not sell (the classic example being Stephen Donaldson’s Mordant’s Need). Certainly Spin State was never published in the UK, and yet the recent success of Gavin Smith’s Veteran proves there is a market in this country for this particular type of science fiction. True, this is now, and Spin State was originally published in 2003, when things might very well have been different. And, of course, there are those references in the book to the IRA…

While Spin State is a type of science fiction I find it hard to truly enjoy, it’s plainly a skilfully put-together novel. I’m tempted to have a go at the sequels, Spin Control (2006) or Ghost Spin (due next year), and I’m very much surprised these books are not better-known.