You know: in a foolish, undiscriminating way, I've been happy these last few months. I don't know why. I just am. I love my friends; I love my pupils; I love what I read; I -- dammit -- love my thoughts. I love the taste of oranges.
Thornton Wilder in a letter to Gertrude Stein, Aug 14, 1936

Sunday, May 1, 2011


MetaplanetaryMetaplanetary by Tony Daniel
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I hate cliffhangers. I don't mind them on TV series when I am watching the whole thing on DVD and can go straight to the next season. But even though I knew Metaplanetary was the first of a two part series, I expected some resolution at the end that would set the stage for what comes next. (For instance, I read Red Mars and was totally satisfied with "the story so far,"  and I may well read Mars Green and Blue because I know they will take the saga of colonization into new levels. Metaplanetary turns out to be a 437 page build up to another 500 page novel. Lots of things blow up, but no character arcs are resolved and ready to develop in new directions. In fact, characters who appear to be "major" disappear for 200 pages, and plot threads that on one level promised to drive the story get dropped until the last few pages where they reappear as welcome reminders, at least for me, because I had more or less forgotten them.

What is fully realized in Daniel's novel is the world humans inhabit in the year 3000. Human beings now come in three parts. There is the aspect, which is you with all the squishy parts inside. Your convert is an algorithmic version of yourself that can take care of business in the virtuality. And the pellicle mediates between aspect and convert. Your pellicle is filled with "grist," a nanotechnological construct that allows for the immediate transfer of information wherever it exists, and since it has been dispersed essentially everywhere, you can access information and other people from anywhere. It's like you are your own iPhone. Grist is most abundant when you stay within the Met, a system of space cables that connect the inner planets and house most of the human population. Beyond the asteroid belt are the Outer Planets, where like pioneers everywhere the population tends to be a bit pluckier and not inclined to follow orders.

(I confess I could not have written any of the above without resorting to the Appendixes that come at the end of Superluminal, the second book in the series. Their presence there suggests that the author thought readers might need a refresher course after the three years that separated the publications. I could have used it very 20 pages or so in the first novel alone.)

And then there is the plot. The solar system is about to enter a Civil War. --Wait, maybe I should mention the other human options that include Cloudships, humans who have transformed themselves into moon-sized spacecraft and float around beyond Pluto, and Free Converts, artificial intelligences that have never had a bodily source. It is the status of Free Converts that provides one excuse for the upcoming war, which of course is really just a power grab by one Ames, ex-musician turned ruler of the Met and who has his eye on the entire solar systems. Ames had an abusive childhood and as an adolescent masturbated while sticking splinters under his fingernails. Just the type to someday want to control the solar system.

Having spent the last year or so reading mostly mid-century sf, Metaplanetary made me realize how little real action there had been in most of the books I read. As Philip K. Dick suggests, a science fiction story should ask a "what if?" question and then pursue it to its end, which is what people were doing between 1950 and 1970. Metaplanetary is a post Star Wars novel, filled with chases, battles, and narrow escapes. It's fun while it lasts, but I don't want to have read another 500 pages to find out what happens. But  maybe that's what readers like now. After all, it took six films to tell the Star Wars story. The fact that they got progressively worse does not bode well for all the multi-volume sf that is currently on the the market.

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