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Crescent City Rhapsody
by Kathleen Ann Goonan

(Millennium, 5.99, 564 pages, paperback; published 14 September 2000. ISBN 1-85798-888-4.)

Let me just get something off my chest, if I may. I really really don't like jazz; and one of the few things I enjoy even less than jazz itself are people who do like jazz and go on and on about it.

Bear with me, this is relevant.

Goonan's earlier book in this series, Queen City Jazz, both impressed and repelled me in equal measures to begin with, before driving me away almost forever with its massive jazz OD in the latter half of the book.

I know, I know, the title should have warned me, but Queen City was mostly well received (rapturously in some places), and not without some justification. Kathleen Ann Goonan is an expressive and ambitious writer -- she's a talent we should be both nurturing and treasuring ... if only she'd slow down a bit with all the jazz motifs, references, comparisons, reveries, metaphors, similes, definitions, scores and ecstatic descriptions of its performance.

Therapeutic rant over with, the review of Crescent City Rhapsody begins here.

This is a fine book, almost unputdownable, and reminiscent of Sterling at his revolutionary best (Schismatrix, in particular), it's stuffed full of ideas, believable speculations AND the people caught up in them.

Best of all, there's only a modest amount of jazz, most of which is irrelevant and easily avoided.

Crescent City is a prequel to Queen City and follows a disparate and isolated group of characters through a world forced to change far too rapidly under the twin assaults of emerging nanotechnology and the Silence, a cosmic phenomenon that suddenly and irregularly blankets early-21st century Earth with a form of electro-magnetic pulse that completely disrupts all radio and electronic communication. But it might be something else too...

Against a backdrop of slowly beckoning chaos desperate attempts are made to harness and use newly emergent nanotechnologies to restore the vital communications and computer networks. But can nanotechnology save or destroy humanity -- or will it do both...?

The book spans 27 years in the lives of an eccentric astronomer, a New Orleans "mob boss", a boy born of New Age parents at the beginning of the Silence, a Japanese nanotech researcher and a Tibetan man searching for the only friend he has ever had. Other minor characters occasionally have their say but these five are the regulars.

All five are interesting and human characters, sparingly but well described through a succession of highs and lows, revelations and black despairs as the world they live in flexes and creaks ominously around them.

Although Crescent City is a relatively long book we dip in and out of these characters' lives over 27 years, sometimes losing touch for a whole decade at a time, but -- like old friends -- never quite losing the sense of the underlying person. It's a neat trick and employed without getting bogged down in endless explanatory psychology, such that we feel we know these characters more as we know other human beings than as characters in a story.

Somehow Goonan doesn't write like a conventional sf author (whatever that might be), her use of language is rich -- luxuriant, even -- and addictive; and if the writing is sometimes a bit too rich (though Crescent City is a far more accessible read than Queen City) then God knows sf could do with some work that is genuinely exercising in the literary sense rather than just the scientific to keep us on our toes.

That Crescent City is primarily written from five viewpoints, with the occasional outside addition, makes it an engaging and fascinating reading experience. Two of the narrators are mentally 'damaged' (one temporarily with an apparent full recovery eventually, the other permanent and ongoing), whilst the other three are outsiders with little real idea of what is going on outside their individual lives (one first appears aged just six).

There is no omniscient narrator to tell us what is going on, we have to make do with only fragments of the big picture occasionally glimpsed in isolation, and as the effects of the Silence begin to snowball these seem to be all that anyone knows. The occasional, increasingly unreliable insertion of news reports or scientific explanations enhance this ongoing impression of disintegration.

Zeb, an astronomer, one of the five narrators and my personal favourite, suffers from what I can only tentatively diagnose as very severe manic-depression, a condition that renders much of his narrative completely unreliable, since his memory is periodically overwhelmed by the simple joy/pain of living.

Zeb's experience of living is rather like reading Crescent City Rhapsody in that we only occasionally hear what is really happening and can't be sure what to believe even then! If one wanted to get 'literary' about it you could almost say he is the author: a genius aware of things no one else knows, not subject to authority, living his life outside the conventional narrative with a pocketful of notes that may or may not explain everything. PhD proposals to the usual address, please...

Complaints? Well, I have only one really: Marie Laveau is supposed to be a mob boss, controlling a vast web of people and money. Where, then, are the rackets, the gang wars, the vicious power politics? Marie seems far too benevolent to ever have risen so high in the underworld -- even if it is through her family connections. This basic pillar of her existence (and a necessity for the conclusion of Crescent City) seems an entirely extraneous part of her life, despite the fact that the power she wields is supposed to stem entirely from her status as some kind of Godmother. The only threat to her, when it does come, is from the might of the US government!

I really wanted to enjoy Crescent City Rhapsody -- just as when I first picked up Queen City Jazz with so much anticipation a few years ago -- and this time I wasn't disappointed. This is a great book. Kathleen Ann Goonan is improving all the time; and she was pretty good to begin with.


Review by Stuart Carter.

 

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© Stuart Carter 28 April 2001