Monday, December 12, 2011

Review - Dancing with Eternity by John Patrick Lowrie

Short review: In the future no one dies, families are a forgotten artifact of the past, and space travel is accomplished by thinking about it. So why go to the most dangerous planet in the known galaxy?

If you can reboot
You just might live forever
Let's do stupid stuff

Disclosure: I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Full review: In the future no one dies. Well, hardly anyone dies. And no one is born. Except on one planet. Instead, people are hatched to work as indentured servants for massive interstellar corporations for their first lifetime, after which they can be "rebooted" for a second life. And then a third. And a fourth. And theoretically as many times after that as they want to. Marriage and parenthood are are almost forgotten concepts. Everyone is connected to the 'net, and if their body dies unexpectedly, they can upload their consciousness to its ether and be rebooted as good as new. Because everyone is interconnected, it is possible to know intimately the perspective of anyone you meet who is willing to share their viewpoint with you, and as a result, violence is almost unheard of. And interstellar travel via a weird "perspective parallax" process akin to magic is possible.

Science fiction is a hard genre to write. It is probably harder than most people who read science fiction realize. Not only does the author have to assemble some semblance of characters and plot, but he has to define a setting for the reader. But the element that is the most difficult is for an author to convey the point of view of a character from a society alien to the reader. Granted, many science fiction authors don't even try, creating futures in which there are faster than light starships, galaxy-spanning civilizations, and other technological and political differences, that are populated by people who seem to have stepped out of the 1950s (or the 1970s, or the 1930s, or whatever decade the book was written in). Sometimes this works well in the hands of a skillful author, such as Delany's Triton or Varley's Ophiuchi Hotline. In the hands of a less skillful author, it is far less effective. Unfortunately, despite his best efforts, Lowrie is simply unable to make the alien viewpoint of his nigh-immortal 40th century characters seem real to the reader, and as a result, the story of Dancing with Eternity just never seems to gel.

The protagonist of the story is Mohandas, referred to as "Mo" by the other characters. He starts the story down on his luck, unable to pay the taxes assessed for getting scales as part of his most recent body sculpting job - in the future people can choose to reshape their bodies almost any way, but most seem to choose to have cat fur, or look like historical celebrities, or something similarly dull and mundane (in contrast to the radical body sculpting people indulge in in much older science fiction works like The Ophiuchi Hotline, or The Golden Globe) - and he's stuck on a backwater planet, cut off from the 'net, working a crappy job and drinking in a crappy bar every night. While drinking away his sorrows he's approached by "Steel", a beautiful woman with cat eyes and fur who asks him to join her starship crew to join in on a mission the particulars of which she cannot divulge. Because she's really beautiful, Mo agrees.

Which brings up some of the problems in the book: first. the characters keep doing wildly impulsive and dangerous things with little motivation, and second, most of the information about the plot is hidden from Mo (and thus the reader) for large chunks of the book. It turns out that the mission Mo signed on for is to visit the most dangerous place then known. This is revealed pretty early. But big chunks of information is held back from the reader for most of the book, presumably to create a feeling of suspense. But when critical chunks of the plot are held back from the reader for more than half of the book more or less "just because", it doesn't build suspense, just annoyance. And when a plot point is held back that long (or longer in some cases), it builds in the reader the expectation that when the secret is revealed it will be that much more stunning in importance.

Which brings me to another problem with the book: no matter how important are strange a concept or an event seems to the characters, unless you effectively convey the strangeness or importance to the reader, the reader just won't care. And despite his best efforts, Lowrie just wasn't able to get me to marvel in wonder at the fact that people once had "mothers" or that Mo was once "married". The main problem is one that plagues science fiction: if you make the characters in your imagined world too alien, then the reader can't really relate to them. And Lowrie hurts his cause by frequently not following up on the implications of his changed world: in a sequence that is supposed to be pivotal, a drunk character recounts his experiences in the last war a thousand years ago - an event that seems mostly to have been included to allow for some didactic commentary on gender relations - in which female commandos working for a feminist regime attacked his unit and singled out the female unit commander as a "gender traitor". But Lowrie had already established that technology was developed enough at the time to allow for people to change genders if they wanted, making the whole issue of gender disputes seem kind of pointless in the first place, and rendering the idea of a "gender traitor" kind of silly.

This isn't to say that Dancing with Eternity a bad book. There are some interesting ideas here, but they never seem to add up to anything more than an adequate story. We learn early that Mo is extremely old, even by the standards of the 40th century, but this never really amounts to much more than a curiosity. Steel's plan involves going to the most dangerous place known in the galaxy to try to solve the problem of why people need to reboot every so often, but the "plan" is more or less wishful thinking. And once they reach their destination, Steel, who is supposed to be smart turns out to be a complete idiot about research. And the rest of her crack crew, supposedly with hundreds of years of experience behind them, seem to be little more than dilettantes when it comes to scientific inquiry. And when the big secrets of the book are revealed, they turn out to be pretty uninteresting. And in large part, mostly irrelevant to the story.

I suppose the most common emotion the characters themselves have in the book is one of boredom. Because they live so long, they can take decades to perfect and implement their personal plans, a world element that is supposed to make Steel's rush to get her project done seem remarkable. But once again, while it may seem remarkable to the other characters that Steel would be in such a "rush" (with a project that takes months to execute), for the reader it just isn't that stunning, despite the author repeatedly telling us it is so. Dancing with Eternity is a book that wants to be about big ideas and big decisions, but because the characters are at the same time so alien and so pedestrian, it never rises above adequacy.

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