It's a question that I've been wondering about the past year or so: just how far can hard sf go in depicting radical new technologies and their consequences whilst remaining legible - let alone readable - to its readers? These boundaries are expanding all the time, particularly as the frontiers of scientific knowledge seem to pull inexorably away from those of public understanding.
The question is posed as someone with no more qualifications in the sciences than the two GCSEs my comprehensive school generously awarded me some years back. I flatter myself that, considering my background, I'm reasonably well informed about (if hardly fully conversant with) some new technologies and advances in science. Even so much of the cutting edge science seems increasingly difficult to make any sense of. As Ali G might conceivably say, is it because I is educated in the arts?
With physics in particular becoming exponentially esoteric, are we going to reach a point in the near future where one branch of sf is being written by physicists exclusively for other physicists simply because no one else can understand it? It's a horrible thought for me because the sf I've always enjoyed most has been at the harder end. You know, the kind with the absolutely crazy ideas that later turn out to be based on some fairly solid speculation.
Perhaps this is simply the hard sf crowd finally getting their own back on those naughty New Age writers and their brand of nearly incomprehensible noodlings? Hopefully I can catch up again by reading my weekly New Scientist a bit more carefully; we'll see.
I'm not quite sure whether John Meaney's new novel Paradox is a harbinger of doom for hard sf or if I'm worrying unnecessarily, but I occasionally found myself drowning in what may or may not be real jargon: am I too ignorant to understand it all, or might that be the whole idea?
To compare: the opening few chapters of Paradox initially reminded me of Jack Vance (more specifically, the excellent Emphyrio), set in the bizarre subterranean world of Nulapeiron, whose inhabitants live in near-poverty and are ruled from above by Lords and Ladies. They produce delightful artefacts for these rarely glimpsed beings to graciously stimulate the local economy with by purchasing.
Paradox sets up a delicious insecurity of meaning, as Vance does, whereby everything is confusing to begin with, forcing the reader to perform a mental shrug and just press on until things eventually begin to level out and make some sense.
With Vance's books the all-round weirdness generally kind of peaked in the first quarter of the book (often in the very first chapter). Meaney's weirdness keeps on peaking higher and higher, throwing in what sounds like some of the worst excesses of (probably French) Postmodern philosophising, or references to quantum, er, stuff to create a mind-numbingly rich far future.
I kept hoping to learn just a little bit more about the universe Nulapeiron was embedded in, sensing great things just out of view. This sense of knowledge lacking was only heightened by the erratically occurring narrative of a "fabled Pilot" from some 1200 years earlier on Earth, a strand whose relationship to Tom Corcorigan's "present" narrative was, I felt, rather strained. These occasional episodes tended to intrude on the bulk of the story and could have been handled differently to better effect.
The only other point of reference I can put my finger on for comparison is Bruce Sterling's tremendous Schismatrx, which gave me the same chilly feeling of reading about a genuine future, one which naturally, as a barbarian lost in the mists of history, I was far too primitive to properly understand.
Paradox highlights well the tension that all good hard sf should contain, that between legibility and reality - the tension whose remaining elasticity I was worrying about at the start of this review.
Fortunately, Meaney not only has the very backwardness of the lower levels of Nulapeiron to ground us in, but also writes his central character, Tom Corcorigan, at least competently for the most part so that if we cannot follow this protagonist's meteoric intellectual advancement then his social ascent through the striated levels of Nulapeironian society is far more familiar (one might almost say Dickensian...).
Tom would be a more interesting narrator if he weren't as utterly driven as he is - but then he wouldn't be able to escape from his poverty as he does. As it is, his frightening level of ambition (or is just me betraying my slacker tendencies?) and devotion to self-improvement means he come across as a terribly earnest shell of a character for most of the middle part of the book - which might actually be rather a clever compromise, since intellectually this is the hardest section of the book to follow!
If my cerebral cortex was slashed and bloodied by the end of Paradox then it wasn't because the story was especially intricate, but rather because Meaney has done a good job of reworking some old themes and interweaving them with new ideas and cocksure jargon. Paradox is, underneath some daunting local colour, a classical adventure, and definitely one of the better ones at that.
Review by Stuart Carter.
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© Stuart Carter 3 June 2000