All the world is a well-crowded stage
On a blustery November evening (well, night, as sunset comes far too soon these days), the hardy Beamers beamed over to Panera’s for some warming soup and some warming thoughts about life on the jungle planet of New Amazonia, setting for Elizabeth Bear’s space operatic espionage tale of inter-dimensional intrigue, love, and betrayal, Carnival. Chock-a-block with ideas and characters working double (or triple) agendas, the novel had us pointing at lots of favorite moments and scenes, even as we struggled to process the whole into a coherent story.
The Hard Life of a “Cultural Attache”
New Amazonia is a planet of free women and indentured men, the result of a hurried mass exodus from Earth, just ahead of the take-over of planetary environmental matters by a set of logical, clinical, pitiless artificial intelligences, the Governors. The human polity of space is split into a Coalition unified under the Governors and a human Council that handles the social/economic aspects of life, and increasingly fewer free colony worlds like New Amazonia. Two ambassador/spies, Vincent and Michelangelo, former lovers, arrive to arrange a repatriation of art works, but also to undermine the planetary government and allow the Council to force New Amazonia into the Coalition. Except each is also working for another interested party, either to undermine the Coalition or to unify the remaining free colonies into a rival confederation. And so are their contacts on New Amazonia, with various resistance groups for men’s rights interacting with the current Prime Minister’s political enemies. Not to mention the inter-dimensional aliens (Did we not mention them?) whose technology supplies New Amazonia with the unlimited energy that could effectively turn off the Governors and stop their regular culling of Earth’s population (back up to 500 million after the first mass killing Assessment). Did we mention that this is a busy novel?
Really, Really In Media Res
Ms. Bear makes no apology for dropping her readers right into the middle of things, whether political machinations, or interpersonal problems, or the mysteries of New Amazonia’s aliens, The Consent, who originally built the planet’s surviving cities but have since uploaded themselves into a holographic parallel universe. Love it or hate it, the book offers a lot of material over which to chew. Nick found it overly busy with details, crammed a bit too tightly for his tastes. Fran also found the mass of material to be a big obstacle to overcome, almost enough to stop her from continuing past the first half of the book. I was also floundering a bit to start, feeling like I should be taking notes and drawing diagrams to chart the various relationships and braided histories of people and planets (like Vincent’s mother being one of the very few women with planetary authority within the Coalition, thus tying Vincent’s personal life to the history of the space Diaspora and the recent attempts by the Coalition to re-unite all humanity under its own banner).
Just Add Latex Forehead Ridges and/or Nose Jewelry
But, part of the interest that the book offered to us was an escape from the dread “Planet of Hats” cliche, wherein characters of supposedly contrasting cultures and rival societies are all essentially motivated the same and react the same, the only truly distinguishing characteristic being what kind of hat each one is wearing. In Carnival, the characters do react in ways that represent different cultural adaptations, frequently expressed through one of the major cultural tells, cuisine. Nick found the preoccupation with food to be distracting, but I defended it as one of the very basic definitions of culture. So, Vincent and Michelangelo having extreme aversion to the “primitive” foods of New Amazonia (actual animal parts, charred in fire, and served to their faces!) made the distinction between the hyper-ecological sensitivity of Earth and the more “frontier” society of New Amazonia (where hunting is a popular pastime) very clear.
Hello, Miss Bond, or Can I Call You Vincent?
Similarly, years before Ms. Leckie experimented with pronouns in her Ancillary books, Ms. Bear had male characters addressed with the honorific “Miss” by citizens of a matriarchy who would only deal with women or “gentle” (gay) men. And far from the stereotypical feminine Edenites in touch with Mother Gaia, New Amazonians hunt and have a system of personal social standing as touchy as any samurai’s, to the point where “honor” is their synonym for the sidearms that every well-dressed New Amazonian is wearing strapped to her hip. (It does take a few pages to discover just what a character’s “honor” really means, of course.) So, Vincent and Michelangelo, homosexual outcasts on an Earth where procreation is the social imperative, are suddenly stuck in a setting where they are simultaneously the most honored of males, allowed the freedom to be treated as women and not exiled to the fighting arenas with the “stud” males.
We did argue over the system of male chattel slavery evident on New Amazonia, with its lack of open revolt despite highly trained combat males. But, as I noted, many historical slave systems survived for centuries with few, if any, open rebellions. Most were plagued by more underground sabotage and passive resistance, which is demonstrated on New Amazonia by a variety of pro-male subversive movements. Maybe too many resistance groups, thought Fran, though again it was a nice break from The Rebels fighting The Empire, I offered.
On the Wings of Dragon Aliens
One aspect that may have been underserved in the book were the aliens, the original inhabitants of New Amazonia, who keep an eye on the current residents and have much the same fondness for their “bipeds” as an owner would for a favorite pet. Again, there is a strong sense of the alienness of Kii, our viewpoint alien, and The Consent of which it is a part, particularly with the contrast of individual alien and collective hive-mind to which it reports. To advance the separatist agenda, our heroes strive to isolate Kii from the Consent, through the technology hacking of a 10-year-old New Amazonian male prodigy. Carol, absent from the meeting but providing me with some of her comments, found it a bit too much to believe that technologically backwards humans could hack the Consent, especially via a 10-year-old pulling an all-nighter on his laptop. And most of us agreed, though Kathy (who sadly had not had a chance to read the book) was willing to credit child prodigies with some amazing abilities. There are miracles and there are deus ex machina, each as believable as the reader chooses to give credence or not. Fran wished for more detail about the aliens themselves, so even in a book crammed with concepts, we could be found asking for more.
All’s Well that Ends
One point that caught us all with a wish for less was the ending. Or, not precisely the ending, as the final chapter does a terrific job at stitching together the various plotlines and outlining the characters’ fates, as well as finishing on a magnificent final sentence. All to be undone, alas, by a one-page Epilogue, the mere mention of which brought forth expressions of anguish, mine chief among them. Was it Ms. Bear’s own decision to undo the well-crafted tragedy of the final chapter with a Happy Ending, or was she pushed? I prefer to blame the publisher or her editor for the rather unsatisfying sudden “and they all lived happily ever after” note that jars the narrative so much on the last page. Next time I see her, I shall have to ask. (Full disclosure: I know Ms. Bear personally, through mutual friends, two of whom are named in the dedication of this book.)
For Those Keeping Score at Home
Overall, we did give decent marks to Carnival (two 7s and a 5) and were willing, on the basis of Ms. Bear’s story of a re-processed serial killer, “Covenant”, which appeared in our July book, Hieroglyph, to consider reading her again. Fans of historical fiction and fantasy should read her 2-book “secret history of magic” sequence featuring Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare, Ink and Steel and Hell and Earth (The Stratford Man duology). Or her novellas set in a fantasy world inspired by Central Asian cultures, Bone and Jewel Creatures and Book of Iron. Not to mention her Hugo Award-winning riff on Lovecraftian racism, “Shoggoths in Bloom”. Have I mentioned I know and like Ms. Bear?