11 June 2006 by Published in: entertainment No comments yet

I just finished Worldwired, and it’s been a few months since I read Hammered and Scardown (back to back, in November) so this review is probably going to focus more on the third book than the first two because it’s the freshest in mind. It’s no secret that I love Elizabeth Bear, but I will make an effort to point out some of the things I thought were a little weak in this set of books which are the first long work of hers I have read.

First of all, these are good books, worth reading, with plenty of shiny and lots of heart. The downward ecological spiral is fascinating, the aliens are very cool, and the worldwire is the best computing network since Gibson’s cyperspace. If you aren’t hooked by Genevieve Casey then you lack any empathy whatsoever and should probably be administered the Voigt-Kampff test. Her character arc is nicely drawn and most satisfying.

Bear manages an ensemble cast surprisingly well and, in the third book especially, really shows her strong tension/plot skills by managing short, breath-taking scenes with far flung characters that build on one another in that gripping what-else-could-possibly-go-wrong way. She breaks away in all the right spots, too, even if it makes you go “Arggh! I’m not ready to leave this scene!” as you read it.

I liked how we get character emotional states through the filters of other character points of view, and how these evaluations are not always completely correct. It’s a clever way to tell us both about the character being observed and the character doing the observation, and is probably a whole lot harder to do well than Bear makes it look. The poetic, metered writing when wired POV characters jump into slowtime was pretty cool. I also liked a lot of particular actions characters took, sometimes expected and sometimes quite surprising but always believable. I won’t spoiler anything by going into specific details, just be prepared to enjoy it when you read the books yourself.

However (there’s always a however, isn’t there?) Bear had some quirks in her writing that were mildly irritating. She was a little too…in love, I guess…with her Feynman AI. In the second book especially, he gets more physical description time than any of the other characters, and you know what? Hasn’t got a body! Isn’t a physical entity! So, you know, not interested in those painstaking descriptions of his gestures, ripped right from the movies we’ve all seen of Feynman giving speeches. Ok, ok, I get the big irony stick here, we physicalize the entity who has no biological form, but in my opinion, it was overdone. In the third book she balances this out a little with lavish description time of other characters as well so it’s a bit less annoying.

Another small gripe: people talked too much alike for my taste, which was a less well-managed part of the ensemble cast. Only Jen always sounded like herself (though Gabe and Min-Xue were pretty distinct), and that was mostly due to the religious phrasings and the French bits. Now, I know that in real life people adopt other people’s modes of talking, and that’s one way to show you who is allied to whom. I don’t think it works as well in fiction, where the goal is (usually) to give different characters different speech patterns. For example, at least three different characters (maybe more, some repetitions might have slipped by before I was aware I was reading this particular set of words AGAIN) use the phrase “if you squint at it”. I didn’t buy it from all three, and felt like that was Bear’s phrase, slipping in. Hmmmm, tempted to search her blog on the phrase “if you squint at it”, but won’t because it doesn’t seem sporting somehow.

Despite Bear’s deftness with the rotating cast, I felt like there were too many characters, especially in the third book. I couldn’t figure out why we needed all those scientists aboard the Montreal, and why Elspeth Dunsany got relegated to being the flirt and the surrogate mommy in book three. Wtf was that about? Couldn’t she have served in Jeremy’s stead? So she’s scared of EVA, isn’t that a good reason to force her into it? Couldn’t she have gone over with Charlie to the shiptree? Or hell, couldn’t Charlie have gone over there alone? What did we need Jeremy for again? Didn’t Wainwright serve to worry about Leslie sufficiently? Which, btw, I was told a whole bunch of times how professional Wainwright was and how just because she was all hot for Leslie she wasn’t going to spring him from the birdcage, but I totally missed the part where she starts getting the hots for him. Was it there and I just didn’t pick up on it? Kindly do not elide the human interaction bits, if you would, specially if they determine character maneuvers. Also, I got a little whiplash from book two to book three; in Scardown Riel’s Brit scientist was portrayed as a good guy and then in Worldwired presto change-o, he’s the evil spy we must keep ignorant of the heroes’ do-good machinations. Huh? And also, why is he there but not there? I never got to see him in book three, just hear about how he was around. Weird.

[MILD SPOILER] — In the first book, Razorface’s wife was redshirted too quickly for me. She was just too nice, and too incidental, to survive. It’s not that I mind seeing stuff coming, but in most places Bear worked the casualties more subtly and to better effect.

In general, the trilogy was filled with plenty of action, lots of guts and glory, sharp edges and people cutting themselves thereon (yay for a book with consequences), and characters who felt real. Prose was occasionally sloppy, but perhaps this wouldn’t have been so noticeable if the prose wasn’t so elegant in parts (I know, if this compliment were anymore backhanded it would smack me on the rebound). Still, the inconsistency draws the eye. There’s an enjoyable sense of wonder about everything that unfolds, whether fabulous or catastrophic, which is a definite plus for my science fiction reading list. My complaints hardly rise to the level of quibbles, and there’s certainly both fun and engaging insight to be had from reading these three books. So I say to you: go forth, buy (or borrow) and read these three books.

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