Saturday, February 27, 2010

Queen of Angels

Queen of Angels by Greg Bear
The hardest book in the Shack wasn't written by Nietzsche or Girder. It was written in 1990 by a sci-fi author named Greg Bear. His book was radically different from anything else - as any novel set in future should be. Queen of Angels makes contemporary work like Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game look like the overworked fumblings of a pretentious hack. While descriptions of diodes and flashing quasars verge on poetic - there's no emotional depth in Card's resigned Yoda-esque approach to genocide - and there must be! I mean, Ender's Game is genocide, right? Why does this book read like directions for Rice Krispies Treats when District 9 (aka Alive in Joburg) reads like an Auschwitz diary or Queen of Angels reads like a Thought Police report?

A clear problem to bad sci-fi, like Ender's Game, is a peristent lack of believable characters in situations that produce a emotional response. When this response is felt in good sci-fi books, like Bear's Queen of Angels, a reader has a kind of "A-ha!" sort of moment when they realize what was missing from previous books. "A-ha!" happens, in the style of "What is the Matrix?", "Use the Force" or "I am the Qwasadtz Haderach!", when connections and conflicts develop between the sci-fi environment and the characters in it.

Bad sc-fi happens anyway. It happens due to all the flyin' cars, bugger clouds and androids. As a countermeasure the characters must, through empathy/interest in their struggles, drive the rest of the story (see Butlerian Jihad). These characters must not simply go through the motions, mindlessly obeying genre convention, like badly concieved of paper dolls. Big tittie replicants flyin' space cars or no, this is clearly bad writing regardless of genre.

Queen of Angels differs greatly in this aspect. Bear relates how life in 2048 is radically different due to advances in technology and contrasts in prevailing social attitudes through his characters not through overworked architectonic descriptions. In spite of these broad ontological changes, there's an unmistakably human element running the course of a tight thriller. In 2048, life's road has changed but the rules governing that road, the unspoken rules of love and death, have not. Different road, same rules. It's a formula that has clearly worked for Arthur C. Clarke, Frank Herbert, Phillip K. Dick and argueably Stephen King's apocalyptic ensemble in The Stand.

In applying this method of connecting environment and character, Queen of Angels does not become lost in long, hypothetical descriptions of futuristic toasters. Rabid technophilia is a huge failing of sci-fi writers like Orson Scott Card, Ben Bova and many, many others.

So here is Greg Bear's ultra-futuristic world of 2048 century Los Angles. It's a dirty megopolis of steel canyons that stretch to the sky and to the sea. Similar to Phillip K. Dick's Bladerunner, in it's dystopian humanist approach, L.A. is a series of vast metropolitan worlds that dwarf the individual. The City of Angels is built upon layer after layer of drowned history, sprawling throngs of disparate people and infamous crimes.

Concepts like an interior Internet, which Bear describes as the Country of the Mind, are causally referred to with astonishing detail. In doing so, the line between the psychological concept of Ego is given image and digital life. The Country of The Mind can be explored in a kind of virtual reality simulation that is used by police and psychiatrists for many purposes - to either investigate crime or alter a patient into a more acceptably compliant state of mind.

As a side effect, In Greg Bear's 2048, humans can be co-opted into enslaved hard drives subjected to lines of code or identity "viruses". If that wasn't bad enough, the human body itself is as malleable as computer parts. Completely new incarnations of the body come in the form of over-night plastic surgeries that can change race or sex to the point that the idea of Ego or Self as a bodily concept is almost entirely obsolete.

The plot for Queen of Angels revolves around revolution in Hispanola and the search for a revolutionary named Goldsmith whose namesake is a nod to George Orwell's own figures of Smith and Goldstein. Goldsmith, accused of a series of ghastly murders, is hunted down by Detective Mary Choy. Choy quickly realizes that her quarry could be hiding in the body or the mind of millions. To add another dimension to the question of identity, Bear includes a newly self-aware form of Artificial Intelligence as a character. The A.I. being attempts to understand it's creators while travelling in space and cryptically communicating with Choy.

Although the book was nominated for a Hugo, a Locus, and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award (for which he won 2nd place) all in 1991, to date, Queen of Angels hasn't won a major literary award. However, Bear's depth and imagination enjoys the deepest respect from fans and authors. It should also be noted that Greg Bear's career has only garnered him a single award: a Nebula in 1993 for Moving Mars.

The Official Greg Bear, News
Wikipedia, Greg Bear
Wikipedia, Queen Of Angels
Worlds Without End, Sci-Fi Award Winners: 1991

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