Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Review: Spin State

As a rule, hard science fiction novels have extremely poor character development and uninteresting characters with lots of exposition, while softer fiction frequently has good characters, but usually has scientific plot holes you can drive a starship through.

Chris Moriarty's debut novel Spin State (dead-tree version, Physical Review. She even provides comments on what general introductions to quantum mechanics you might want to read before delving into those pieces.

With that sort of hard science credentials, one might expect her characters to be no more than wooden, two dimensional pieces, but delightfully, that is not true. Sure enough, the book starts with an action sequence, a preamble to introduce you to the universe and the lead characters, and to provide motivation for the main character (Major Catherine Li). After an operation that went down the tubes, Catherine is provided a chance to redeem herself by investigating the murder of a famous scientist who was conducting experiments of strategic importance.

Catherine Li is the kind of character that traditionally belongs to the macho male hero category --- stubborn, unable to face her own emotions and her past actions, and prone to trying to settle things by fighting rather than by thinking. Yet her motivations and character is so well drawn that interactions such as the following amused me:

“Two-thirds of the gross national product of France, to be precise.” Li choked on her wine. “For a piece of jewelry? That’s ridiculous!” “Mmm.” Cohen looked amused. “I seem to recall you spending a good six months’ pay on a certain original-issue hand-rebuilt Beretta, O Parsimonious One. What did you call it? Sweet?” “That’s different,” Li protested. “Professional equipment.” He puffed on his cigar, grinning. “Well, just think of diamond necklaces as professional equipment for queens.”

And amidst all this character development and exposition of quantum mechanics, the author manages to squeeze in a pretty good depiction of the mining environment into the novel, evoking Charles Dickens, or even How Green Was My Valley, which still somehow never made me feel as grimy or dirty as Spin State managed.

The slow, gradual build up gives Moriarty time to work through several themes --- FTL travel through quantum teleportation, the nature of emergent intelligence (she's clearly read Minsky!), and the implications of genetically designed sapients. The book's ending is one long action sequence, and quite well written, but the aftermath feels a little rushed. And for someone willing to put her protagonist through hell, the consequences feel just a little bit too easy on Major Catherine Li. Moriarty might not have wanted a total downer for the story.

Lest you think the book is too serious, there is a bit of humor sprinkled around, just enough to give me a smile, even in the middle of an otherwise tense sequence:

“Yeah, yeah. And if wishes were horses . . .” “. . . horses wouldn’t be extinct!”

In conclusion, I think this is the best novel I've read so far all year, even taking into account The Atrocity Archives, which I love dearly. Archives succeeds because of its many in-jokes and references, but you can clearly see the author's manipulations of its characters and protagonists. Spin State succeeds because the author manages to keep everything in control: character, plot, exposition, and story. Highly recommended at the Kindle price, and worth paying for the dead tree version even if you don't have a Kindle. In fact, I've already bought the Kindle edition of the second Moriarty book, Spin Control, and I'll look for more Moriarty books in the future.
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