26 March 2005

Hammered by Elizabeth Bear

I bought Elizabeth Bear's first novel, Hammered, without intending to write about it. I've been in the mood for adventure stories recently, and this seemed to fit the profile. An easy read, nothing too challenging, some interesting spins on familiar tropes. It is all that, yes, but there's a little bit more than your average sci-fi technothriller here, and I found myself not reading simply for the plot, not skipping from one hit of suspense to another like a desperate endorphin addict, but rather reading with care. And when the ending arrived with just about nothing being resolved, I was furious, which I wouldn't have been had the novel failed to capture my imagination so fully.

Hammered is, in some ways, set up to please no one. It recycles a lot of familiar SF territory and is written in the idiom of hardboiled post-cyberpunk neuronoir ("My implant hurts." "Maybe it means there's a murder six blocks over being committed by soldiers of multinational fortune peddling spare ozone." "Right. Kiss my NAFTA scar before we get all VR." "Your rhyming makes me beanstalk."), but the writing is actually thoughtful and engaging, sometimes even elegant. It's not a book about its setting, however, and so some readers are likely to feel let down, because the background is drawn with hints rather than (for the most part) through long passages of exposition. (This is just good science fiction writing technique, but despite how often it is proclaimed by writers, there's a godawful lot of infodumping even in otherwise successful books. Or it may just be that I'm oversensitive to exposition.)

Part of what Bear seems to be doing is building a setting that is strange through familiarity: she starts from material known to anybody who has read much science fiction over the past decade or two and inserts small shifts that undermine the cliches and allow an attentive reader to think again about the speculations that created the cliches in the first place. Again and again I found myself thinking that Bear's vision of the future was convincing both as speculation and as a setting for a story, but every time I thought that, some little detail would cause me to wonder why I accepted premises used so often -- why did I assume, for instance, that in books such as this representatives of governments and corporations must be inherently and totally evil? Fred Valens, the government/military scientist in Hammered is a dishonest and obsessive man who is easy enough to dislike, but after a while I stopped sharing protagonist Jenny Casey's hatred for him, which made me question a lot of Jenny's other reactions to things. If Valens had been simply a cartoon, yet another scheming mad scientist employed by the military-industrial complex, pure antagonist, Hammered would be just another piece of adventure drivel churned out for people who want a bit of escape from their drab, wretched lives. If Jenny were an entirely reliable and rational narrator, the novel would be far less interesting. (One flaw, it seems to me, is that Jenny's sister Barbara is presented as pure, unadulterated evil, the nastiest of nasties, and I kept expecting her to burst out at some point with an evil cackle.)

So yes, Bear uses all sorts of genre paraphernalia, and there are echoes of more movies and books than I could count, everything from Blade Runner and RoboCop to "The Ship Who Sang". These echoes will probably anger some readers, but I thought it was fun, because SF has long been a recursive sort of fiction, with writers building from each other's ideas like a thousand Virgils from a Heinleinian Homer. Bear does it like a juggler who is also a magician, occasionally changing the color of the balls as they fly through the air so that we keep our eyes on what's being juggled. She acknowledges and doesn't hide from her lineage.

The echoes and their revisions are not what the book is about, however; they are background. The novel is about Jenny Casey, a 50-year-old veteran of more battles than most of us would want to contemplate, who was once saved from death by having her body reconfigured against her will into a weapon. The first half of the novel is as much character study as action/adventure. The story is told through multiple strands, and so has the potential to be confusing, but this is such a common technique and Bear labels everything so clearly that I didn't ever find myself lost for long, and sometimes actually resented the chapter headings that explained exactly where and when things were taking place. The various perspectives all contribute to the plot, but more importantly (and interestingly) they are all related to elements of Jenny's past and, she will discover, future. It is as if her experiences have been shattered and scattered over the novel's present.

The plot takes over in the second half, which I suppose is inevitable, but it was a bit of a disappointment, because the first half prepared the second to be both a complex tale of a character's moral struggles and a rip-roaring adventure. Few books have ever achieved this, though, so I didn't let myself stay disappointed for long, and ended up caught up in the story and reading late into the night.

And then it ended. Or, rather than ended, stopped. Yes, indeed, there will be a sequel, Scardown. And I'm sure it's good marketing to stop a story before much has been resolved and so keep readers waiting for more, but I find it exasperating. It's why I stopped reading mainstream comic books as a kid -- the stories never seemed to end, but just go from one cliffhanger to another. I can understand why Bear stops where she does -- one phase of Jenny's life is over, another beginning -- but that doesn't make it any less annoying.

I could write more. But I think I'll just stop.