Saturday, June 4, 2011

Review - The Veiled Web by Catherine Asaro

Short Review: Lucia explains what the Internet is, gets married by accident to a Muslim millionaire, gets involved in intrigue over who controls the world.

Lucia, Rashid,
Islamic and Catholic,
Struggle to find love

Full Review: The Veiled Web is one of Catherine Asaro's few novels not set in her Skolian Empire series. It is a frustrating story that has flashes of brilliance in a somewhat sprawling tale that seems almost too big for a single novel. The story is a mashed up agglutination of cyberpunk, techno-thriller, and romance elements. As a result, it is somewhat less than focused, as it tries to cram too much into its pages, veering from sweet love scenes to cultural conflicts, software development sequences, and car chases and gunfights. Further hampering the novel is the fact that the male romantic lead seems to be a misogynistic douche bag. Despite these flaws, the novel is still quite good, with an enjoyable techno-thriller story about control over developing technology.

The main characters of the story are Lucia del Mar and Rashid al-Jazari, a Catholic professional ballet dancer and a Muslim multimillionaire software developer. The novel opens up with Lucia completing a special performance at the White House before attending a special reception and dinner where the cast of characters is introduced; a Colonel with a mysterious job in military intelligence, some luminaries in the field of software development, and the mysterious Rashid who has a conversation with Lucia that flusters her before the events of the official function separate them and she ends up being politely interrogated about him by her Colonel friend. It turns out that Lucia, despite having little formal education, is fascinated by computers and the Internet, and everyone at the dinner is talking about a rumored new "virtual reality" way to access the Internet called the "Duke's suit", although no one knows any details about it, or even who the "Duke" is.

The novel moves on and Lucia heads off with her dance troupe to Italy. It turns out that Rashid is a smitten fan who more or less stalks Lucia until she leaves a poorly progressing rehearsal and "accidentally" runs into him on the street. I say "accidentally" because Rashid later reveals that he had been following Lucia around like a puppy hoping that he would run into her. And when she does he asks her to dinner and offers her a ride back to the rehearsal. But then the techno-thriller plot intersects with the romance plot and the two get drugged and kidnapped. As part of their escape, they get married without Lucia really realizing that is what is happening, and she ends up sequestered in Rashid's father's home with Rashid's extended family.

The novel consists of two intertwined stories. On the one hand there is a cross-cultural interfaith romance in which Rashid and Lucia attempt to reconcile their differences and come to some sort of arrangement that will allow them to stay together as man and wife. On the other is a story about the development of a revolutionary new software and hardware package and the intrigues surrounding the attempts by nefarious forces to control it. The second story is pretty good, although somewhat dated. The first story isn't a bad story, but it is marred by the fact that Rashid is, for most of the story, such a misogynistic jerk that it is difficult to understand what Lucia sees in him, or for the reader to want the two to reconcile their differences and end up together.

The primary difference between Lucis and Rashid is religious - she is Catholic and he is Muslim, but each also comes from fairly different cultural backgrounds as she grew up in rural New Mexico with parents of Spanish descent while Rashid grew up wealthy in Morocco. This religious and cultural clash between the two forms the core of the love story, but time and again Rashid proves himself to be entirely unsympathetic. He brings Lucia to his family home, where we learn that the women are all sequestered from the world in a Harem, a particularly reactionary social arrangement even by Moroccan standards. When the women leave the house once a week, they must all veil themselves. This serves to isolate Lucia with Rashid's mother, older female relatives, a group of young girls and Rashid's sister-in-law Khadija, the only woman who is similar in age to Lucia. And Khadjia is a particularly sad character, since she so desperately craves female companionship from a woman her own age, but the isolation imposed upon her by Rashid's reactionary family has prevented her from maintaining any healthy adult relationships. At every turn Lucia finds herself restricted by Rashid's disapproval, from her "provocative" dress to her desire to continue her dancing career to her wearing of a crucifix to symbolize her own faith. Although Rashid talks about his vision of cultures and religions meeting at a crossroads and working together, it is clear that he doesn't actually feel the need to put this into action in his own life, as he is singularly unwilling to compromise on almost any point in his relationship with Lucia.

Time and again rashid uses the lame excuse that these limitations on women are simply "part of his culture". But it seems clear that for the most part the extreme restrictions that Rashid expects Lucia to live under are not part of his culture, and to the extent they are, are rapidly being eroded. Rashid has two sisters who are referenced in the story, but both left the family house and live lives as independent and modern women. As he admits, the harem-based isolation of the women in his family is unusual even in Morocco. And so on. But even if it were part of Rashid's culture to isolate and control women, why would that make one sympathetic with him? The men in Rashid's family are certainly free to do whatever they choose to do, and Rashid was perfectly willing to ogle Lucia in her skimpy outfits when she was a professional ballet dancer. However once he is married to her his attitude changes completely, as he disapproves of her wearing anything more revealing than an ankle length neck-high dress even around the family home. Presumably his brothers would lose control of themselves if they saw her in anything more revealing. This double standard makes Rashid seem entirely unlikable, and throughout one wonders what Lucia sees in him that makes him attractive as a potential mate other than his handsome face. Granted he is wealthy and a computer genius, but Lucia clearly has had many opportunities to acquaint herself socially with men who have those qualities and chose not to avail herself of them. As a result, Lucia seems quite shallow, swallowing a pile of restrictions because a handsome man has stalked her and then married her.

And we learn that Rashid had been previously married and divorced to a fellow student when he lived in Britain to earn his advanced degrees in the study of computers. In his previous marriage his wife apparently did not accept the restrictions Rashid seeks to impose on Lucia, and Rashid did not attempt to impose them upon her. But Rashid also says they fought constantly. Rashid also says he is unsure around women, and inexperienced. And it is at this point that the reader understands the source of Rashid's creepy controlling behaviour: he and his male relatives are terrified of women. A woman who is independent and has a mind of her own is simply too frightening for them to deal with. So they hem the women they allow near them in with restrictions and limitations. And Rashid is spectacularly inflexible, refusing to allow even small deviations from the accepted rules, and even refusing to consider a compromise where they would live part of the year in Morocco and part of the year in the United States. In short, through the novel Rashid behaves like a petulant spoiled child, and one wonders why Lucia wastes any time even considering staying married to him.

Running in parallel to this dysfunctional romance is the story of Rashid's creation Zaki. It turns out that Rashid is fabulously wealthy, at least in part because he designed the interactive web browser software known as "websparks", which is widely used, and in fact used by Lucia at the start of the book. Websparks seems to be a learning piece of software that adapts itself to its user's preferences by learning from what the user does and guiding the user through the Internet. As an aside, the elements of the book related to the Internet reveal the dangers of writing a science fiction book set in the near future, as they have become horribly dated. At one point the narrative explains to the reader what the World Wide Web is, an explanation that was probably only marginally necessary in 1999 when the book was published, and seems almost ridiculous now. The book dates itself even more when explaining how Lucia cruises around the web linking up with long-dead services CompuServe, Prodigy, and GEnie even though the book is ostensibly set in 2010. Not being able to predict the future is not a failure on the part of an author, but it does make the book age poorly, and in this respect this book suffers in that regard.

Once Lucia awakens at Rashid's family compound, she discovers that not only is he the fabulously wealthy developer of websparks, but that he has been working on a new sort of interactive web interface software that provides an artificial intelligence to act as a virtual tour guide for the user coupled with a virtual reality suit to insert the user into an artificially created web reality. It turns out that Rashid, through a bit of rhyming slang, is the "Duke", and Zaki is the software that is supposed to power the "Duke's Suit". Unfortunately, Zaki is also unstable, making the Duke's Suit unusable and consequently unmarketable. While Rashid jaunts off to take care of family business on a regular basis, leaving Lucia isolated in the al-Jazari harem, Lucia sneaks into his computer laboratory and tries to figure out what is wrong with Zaki that causes the program to collapse intermittently. But Lucia's efforts reveal more about Rashid, and what is revealed does not make him seem any more attractive.

One reason for Zaki's stunted growth is apparently that Rashid has limited the access the program has to the Internet. This has prevented Zaki's self-learning program from assimilating the information necessary to develop properly. But because Rashid is apparently a control freak, he seems to have not considered turning Zaki loose on the web on his own. It is up to Lucia, bored out of her mind while stuck living in the claustrophobic confines of the harem, to circumvent Rashid's disabling of Zaki's access to the web and allow him to develop towards becoming a fully functional artificial intelligence, or at least towards being a self-learning web browser that doesn't routinely crash. Apparently it takes Lucia, a self-taught computer aficionado with no formal training to figure out the problem that has stumped Rashid, supposedly a computer genius with a doctorate in the study of artificial intelligence, which seems mostly explainable by Rashid's inability to give up any control at all. This dovetails with Rashid's character traits revealed in the romance storyline, but it also raises the question as to whether Rashid is the sort of person that one would want to have this sort of technology.

And this is an important question, because the intrigue portion of the novel involves mysterious forces trying to seize control of Zaki and use him for nefarious ends. But despite his lip service towards harmony and understanding, Rashid seems less than capable of actually putting those ideals into practice. And his controlling nature, combined with his culturally driven misogyny makes him seem like a less than appealing character to be the person who influences the entire web. Lest one think that these factors don't really matter, it is clear that Zaki has internalized Rashid's own prudish medieval attitudes towards women, refusing to work with Lucia until she convinces him that as Rashid's wife, she is essentially his mother. But if Zaki internalizes an aversion to working with women on his own, this would seem to severely limit his usefulness as a web browser, or tour guide for half of the population of the world. And if exposure to Rashid has caused Zaki to internalize this sort of reactionary attitude towards women, one wonders what other less than desirable character traits the program had also picked up. And as a result, when the shadowy villains show up to try to wrest control of Zaki away from Rashid, it doesn't have quite as much impact as one might think, because in the back of the reader's mind, one is wondering whether they are any worse than Rashid would be.

One might think that a story in which the male lead engenders such ambivalence would be a poor book. One would be wrong. Despite the fact that for much of the book one is rooting against Lucia and Rashid ending up together, mostly because it is clear that he is clearly a poor choice for Lucia as a partner, The Veiled Web is a well-written exploration of cultural conflict and how that affects both interpersonal relationships and the potential interconnected world that the web might create. Though I think that Asaro was trying to show what a world in which Western Christianized culture and Middle-Eastern Islamic came to a mutual compromise to forge a future in which the two sides could coexist successfully, she portrayed the reactionary and objectionable nature of Rashid's viewpoint so effectively that I was left wondering why any woman would willingly consent to living in a draconian regime like the one endured by his mother and sister-in-law, and which he seeks to persuade Lucia to accept. In the end, Rashid has something of an epiphany, but is seems unconvincingly motivated, and even the compromise he comes to accept seems to be hypocritical at best, and impinge upon what should be the norms of how women are treated in a modern society. The intricacies of the romance is coupled with the fight for control over the future of the web to demonstrate just how critical the parameters of what is socially acceptable truly is - if Lucia and Rashid, who are falling in love, must navigate a minefield of cultural differences and misunderstandings before ultimately coming to what I regard as a dangerously reactionary compromise, then it is apparent how critical it is that the rest of us preserve our rights in the face of those who hold views inimical to them, and who might seek to limit our freedoms, both the obvious, such as the villains of the story, and the subtle, such as the superficially benign Rashid. Asaro has highlighted that whoever controls the culture that drives access to the Internet will determine the culture of the world in the future, a potentially frightening thought. Like most good science fiction this story raises a multiplicity of questions, but provides very few answers, resulting in a troubling but quite interesting reading experience.

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  1. This is sort of a first, a Muslim/Christian sci fi romance. Interesting premise. Would be hard to make it all work.

  2. I haven't seen any other Muslim-Christian science-fiction romances, so it may be unique. I think there may be a reason for that. It doesn't work incredibly well - it is probably the weakest Asaro book I have read, but the fact that she is able to avoid the book turning into a complete disaster is, I think, a testament to her skill as a writer.