My history with Jane Fancher’s ‘NetWalkers trilogy begins a few years ago when, in one of those fits of madness that sometimes overcome me in bookstores, I picked up a copy of Groundties, a book by a totally unknown author (well, unknown to me) that looked interesting. Mmm — as it turned out, make that “captivating.” And, of course, the world being what it is, it was the first volume of a trilogy, and volumes two and three were not to be found. (As I learned later, there were copies available on the Internet, mostly at extravagant prices.) At any rate, several years later, after Groundties had made it to a firm place on my “reread frequently list,” I did lay hands on copies of UpLink and Harmonies of the ‘Net.
The general story line is simple, and harks back to the classic Gernsback formula — the ‘Net, which ties the worlds of the ‘Net Alliance together, is starting to show anomalies. Someone needs to find a way to fix it; that someone turns out to be Stephen Ridenour, a brand-new graduate of the Vandereaux Academy in ‘Net Science. Ridenour is a passenger on the Cetacean, commanded by Admiral Loren Cantrell, on his way to the planet of HuteNamid, ostensibly to check out the ThinkTank there with an eye to joining it. HuteNamid was settled by Amerindian Ethnic Reconstructionists, and has the distinction of an almost completely conflict-free relationship between SciCorps, the members of the ThinkTank, and IndiCorps, the settlers. It is also the home of J. Wesley Smith, the author of the work that was crucial to Stephen’s research, which got him an accelerated graduation with a very high ranking, and an assignment to HuteNamid. The formula is intact: a problem, a crisis, and a brilliant hero with a solution. Sweet, no?
Not so fast.
Fancher has taken a context I’ve seen in other novels, a galaxy-spanning Internet, and made it the cornerstone of a solidly built and intriguing universe. The “Alliance” is actually the ‘Net Alliance, a confederation of planets and stations that relies on the integrity of the ‘Net for its very survival. The government is a tripartite construction, ruled by the Council, the Security agencies, and the ‘Net AT, the final authority on matters of information flow. It doesn’t take much to imagine the potential for political intrigue in such a set-up, and Fancher’s made full use of it: there are the Recons, this era’s economic and political underdogs, kept there largely by the Separationists, a faction centered around Councillor Mialla Shapoorian and her supporter, Jean-Paul Beaubien. There’s really no telling how far Shapoorian’s tentacles have reached, perhaps even into ‘Net AT itself, supposedly completely apolitical. There are periodic rebellions among the Recon planets: Alexis Fontecchio, one of Cantrell’s officers, is a graduate of the Julian Rebellion on her homeworld of Venezia. Another crisis, which seems to have resulted in a complete disaster, happened on Rostov. No one’s talking about that one.
Cantrell has her own assignment on this trip, to investigate some anomalies that seem to have originated in the HuteNamid interface, including researchers who have disappeared — not only from the SciCorps enclave, but from the ‘Net as well. When a native attacks one of her crew during a routine gathering, it gets infinitely more complicated: the Indigene is the son of the planetary governor and promptly goes into a catatonic state under questioning on the ship.
Fancher’s also created a seamless planetary culture: the settlers all came from North American Native groups, but rather than trying to recreate a culture long gone, they have taken the basic concepts that all the tribes had in common and moved on from there. They also have some things they’d just as soon neither the ‘Net AT nor the Alliance as a whole stuck its collective nose into.
In case you were wondering, no one is being completely up front about anything. And, strange as it may seem at the beginning of the trilogy, that includes Stephen.
The more I think about it, the most impressive thing about these novels is the way that Fancher has unpeeled the character of Stephen Ridenour, layer by layer, and blended character, background and story into a whole. I’m a proponent of the idea of “text” as the author’s actual product, and tend not to worry about separating things like character, setting, and plot. Fancher’s approach seems to be the same: in a very real way, Stephen’s character drives the story even as the story provides more and more information about Stephen. It’s pretty much a seamless text, with Stephen as the nexus: his developing relationship with Wesley, the knowledge he carries that he doesn’t remember, the secrets of his own background (a Recon from Rostov whose mother traded on her relationship with the Vandereaux Academy’s director to get him into the place just before Rostov went silent), the complications he unwittingly introduces into an already explosive situation, all tempered by an innocence that may be genuine or may be pure, cold-blooded manipulation. Stephen is not necessarily a nice person, but Fancher has revealed him in such a way that we begin to understand why he is what he is. The same holds true of Wesley, and Loren Cantrell, and just about everyone else in the story. Part of the fascination is the ambiguity inherent in revealing a central character largely through the widely varying perceptions of the other characters, especially when those perceptions meet each other head-on. It makes a complex, absorbing story — I’ve been falling asleep thinking about these people, which is something I don’t do.
This was Fancher’s first published work, and it’s not perfect. Most of the rough edges are just that, a matter of fine tuning. I have my usual objections to dream sequences and flashbacks, although in this case they are obviously necessary and germane — I’d just like them to be briefer and more pointed. It’s that pacing thing again. The intensity, which was a large part of the appeal of Groundties, by the end of Harmonies becomes almost painful — I found myself having to take breaks before my head exploded. The resolutions are soft — nothing’s really settled, a number of possible story lines are initiated, so there’s room for at least another volume (ideally, another trilogy).
Reading is a trade-off, and in the case of ‘NetWalkers, my objections wind up being pretty minor in the face of the overall experience: fascinating universe, characters that capture us (although none of them are easy people, but maybe that’s why), and a story that out-Cherryhs Cherryh in its layers and twists and turns. I’m not only enthusiastic about these books, I’m impressed, and that doesn’t happen all that often. One hopes fervently for a reissue. Word is that Fancher is working on (has written?) a prequel and a rewrite, and that there is another trilogy in the future — I was right about that part.
So, reissue? Or rewrite and new trilogy?
Nuts — I want it all.
(Questar [Warner Books], 1991)