It’s rather odd, from my point of view, to be sitting here after an intensive course in the works of Elizabeth Bear and finally have a chance to consider her first published novels, Hammered, Scardown, and Worldwired. These were greeted by the usual accolades, which in Bear’s case were honestly earned and have been fully justified: these are good reads, and she is, indeed, an important new voice in science fiction and fantasy.
First things first: Bear is writing “hard” science fiction here in its post-War, human-centered incarnation: the technology, in this case nanotech, is essential to the story, but the solutions are human solutions. (It’s also worth noting that Bear, in the “scientific discovery” thread of these novels, pulls in psychologists, ethnolinguists, semioticians, xenobiologists, and the like: “soft” sciences to balance out the code crunchers.)
And speaking of code crunchers, the other leg of her technological foundation is artificial intelligence, with the emphasis on the “intelligence” — one of the major characters as the story progresses is an AI that possesses not only sentience, but free will. (And that is an issue that, regrettably, never really crystallizes — it’s couched, rather, in terms of his being a “moral creature” and the implications left hanging — perfectly in character, but it would have been interesting to see Bear turning herself loose on that one.)
And it’s all set in the frame of an action/adventure story starring Jenny Casey, a former Canadian army non-com who is about half mechanical parts (and there’s another tie-in to the nanotech, as the story progresses). It’s a strongly drawn dystopian future — and not a particularly far future, taking place about fifty years from now — arrived at through a series of major and minor wars, increasing ecological disasters, the foremost of which is global warming — New York is saved only by the dike holding back the Atlantic — equaled only by the political disasters inherent in democracies (American primacy in the world order is a thing of the past, and the major players here are PanChina and Canada). Not too surprisingly, Jenny’s path leads to space, courtesy of alien technology discovered on Mars (which includes, as well, the nanotech that is central to the story).
A reader coming back to these after reading Bear’s later books can see the seeds of some of her ongoing themes, particularly the focus on the costs of love and what I can only describe as an examination of the intersection of right, wrong, and necessity. It’s in these areas, her themes, that Bear has proven herself most adventurous and has reached her greatest depth, and while they’re understandably not as incisive and affecting as in later works, they’re there, which is more than you can say for a lot of writers.
One has to admire Bear’s ability to extrapolate, that time-honored science-fiction method without which, nothing. What’s remarkable with Bear is that not only does she have a facility for projecting current trends into the future, but she seems to take account of the increasing speed of technological innovation — indeed, the increasing speed of everything. She hasn’t hit the poetry of the science, as she did in Dust, but she makes it believable, and that’s the important part: the poetry is gravy.
Structurally, the books are sometimes not so happily done: Bear follows several story lines with varying points of view, which is not something that really bothers me to any great extent, except that it can throw off the pacing, which I do find somewhat problematical. (Mmm — I take that back: there were places where I found it downright annoying.) Scientific insights, no matter how exciting to the scientists, don’t generate quite the same tension in a narrative as do, say, courtroom dramas and shoot outs. At least, they don’t here. (And the shoot out is spectacularly good.) Regrettably, this is most apparent in Worldwired, which staggers along at key points in an attempt to tie the various levels of tension together — one can see the sense of it, but the experience suffers. (If I find myself skimming on a first reading, that is not a good sign.)
I suspect that some of my few complaints about this series — and they are few, and not, all things considered, particularly major — stem from the fact that I am operating from hindsight. These are first novels (and quite an ambitious undertaking on that score), and the sad fact is that their faults are more obvious because I’ve seen what Bear has done since — I really wanted her to do better here, which is completely unreasonable on my part. Don’t take that as a reason to skip them — you would be doing yourself a disservice.
(All Bantam Spectra Editions, 2005)