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Superluminal

by Tony Daniel

(Eos, $25.95, 480 pages, hardcover, May 2004.)

Review by Stuart Jaffe

cover scanThere are certain cues you can take from the structure of a book that point toward what you might expect in its content (any actual matching results when using this technique are purely coincidental, but this still provides a good way to introduce this review). A dramatis persona list usually means you'll be having to juggle numerous families, clans, characters and relationships. A glossary says you'll be doing a lot flipping back and forth until you've become familiar with some alien language. And an appendix often implies a book that will attempt extremely thorough world-building. Superluminal by Tony Daniel has all of these and more in its near seventy pages of supporting material.

Superluminal is the sequel to Daniel's well received novel Metaplanetary as well as the middle novel of a trilogy (or more). It follows the effects of an interplanetary civil war upon numerous characters, some who live in the Met -- a web of cables connected in space, keeping the solar system together as a community (a sort of solar system internet that a person can upload him/herself into). The reader travels throughout the Met and the solar system, watching education on Mercury and battle on Io and all points in between, as numerous characters attempt to find their own places to stake out.

If you noticed that I never mentioned a specific character in the above description, well, that does point to my biggest problem with the book. Once again, the evil spectre of character development -- or, rather, its lack -- creeps into one of my reviews. And here it is caused by a fascinating situation. See, the very things that make Superluminal a thrilling read are also the very things that ruin it.

Tony Daniel has put together one of the most detailed, well thought-out universes I have ever read. The world-building presented here is astonishing. Not only does Daniel have an abundance of intricate ideas in place, but he considers, in great detail, the implications of these technologies upon the daily lives of people. This is China Mieville meets David Brin.

There are Large Array Personalities (LAPs) -- people who have made multiple copies of themselves to exist simultaneously across the Met. There is the whole concept, use and misuse of grist -- the nanotech that permits near-instantaneous communication across the Met. There is a manifold -- a LAP of LAPs. And it goes on and on and on. It can all be a bit overwhelming at first. However, any reader who sticks with it will be well rewarded in the long run. I have not come across a novel as idea-packed as this one in a long time.

Unfortunately (as I pointed out earlier), this strength of the novel is also its downfall. For, in the end, this novel is nothing more than the complexity of these ideas. For many readers, that will be enough. For me, however, I needed characters.

Now, before you kind Daniel fans out there get all defensive, let me say this: Tony Daniel can write excellent characters. The problem is that he buries these people under so much tech that the human element is near-invisible. Perhaps that's his point, but it doesn't seem to be. And, regardless of his intent, it made for a dragging read. Every time something interesting would happen to a character (like, you know, a conflict), the action would invariably be halted by further in-depth explanations of the complex world the author has created. Unlike some writers, however, Daniel does not appear to be doing this in an attempt to infodump every detail he's thought up (after all, he put in an enormous set of appendices). Instead, the characters were victims of Daniel's imagination. After all, how can he write a romantic scene between a woman and an LAP without explaining all about the LAP. It's a catch-22.

And yet other writers manage to pull off this crazy high-wire act. In fact, that is what we readers demand. We want it all and, since we have experienced it in the past, we are less forgiving in the present. I should point out that I have not read Metaplanetary. It is possible that these characters have more to offer when placed within the context of the first book; however, this is hardly a valid excuse. A novel should work as a novel in its own right.

Tony Daniel's novel Superluminal is an astounding achievement in world-building that crushes its characters under this incredible weight. He is a talented writer, and for the idea factor alone I recommend taking a look at his work. Certainly anyone interested in singularity-type stories will find this fascinating stuff. Start with Metaplanetary, though, and, if it gives you what you want, you'll dig Superluminal as well. If it doesn't, well, no amount of supporting material will really matter then, will it?

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