Thursday, June 28, 2012

Harmony

The quick and dirty: 
Rating: 2 stars
Length: Long in a distinctly clunky way (465 pages)
Publication: August 5, 2008 from Daw Books
Premise: The planet of Harmony is supposed to exist in a balanced seven-caste system, but the system is starting to waver. The planet is venting its displeasure with disasters like earthquakes and storms, the old High Priestess died when the Temple collapsed, and her successor is Sissy, a common Worker girl who has been hiding her unusual marks of all seven castes for years. Jake, a spy from the Confederated Star System, was sent to Harmony to steal a secret that could help humanity win its war with the Maril. When the two are thrown together, change starts to sweep the planet with the force of an earthquake.
Warnings: Assassination of children and families, imprisonment and mistreatment in asylums
Recommendation: Give this one a miss. Blending science fiction and fantasy elements in a single setting is difficult, and Bentley hits a halfway point that misses the best elements of both.

What keeps the pages turning for quite a while: 

The book opens promisingly on the young Worker Sissy carving crystals to the exact specifications that interstellar navigation systems need. She works on the technology without being able to use it or leave the planet, but soon she finds an adventure at home when an earthquake threatens the factory. Her instincts guide her to use the resonance of her singing to hold the building up long enough for everyone to escape. The vibrations are vaguely scientific, while the words of apology for harming the planet feel more fantasy-based. While the smooth coexistence of the two states doesn't last long, it works quite well in the beginning when Sissy is still hiding away and doesn't see her powers as anything but doing what feels right in the moment. Laud Gregor, the High Priest of the head Temple, recognizes her markings and her gift, seeing her potential as a leader who might be able to handle the planetary problems and understand Harmony's vibrations in a way that the previous High Priestess could not. 

The initial framework of Jake's story is also intriguing-- he leaves his military role in order to go on a deep-cover mission in Harmony. The Confederated Star System needs Badger Metal for sophisticated navigational systems that would let them defeat the alien Marils, and Harmony will only sell a tiny trickle of it, keeping most of the metal (and the formula) to themselves. He disguises himself as a member of the Military caste, complete with a caste tattoo created by nanobots, and even takes on the computer-stored memories of the man he's replacing. The culture shock is great, and gets even more compelling when he is transferred to the capital and encounters Sissy. The religion doesn't make sense to him, but his protective instincts help him blend into his new military role as her eventual bodyguard. He's on the lookout for chances to find some of the metal or the metallic crystals, but he's also drawn into Sissy's life and feels his loyalties divided. The emotional mess gets unpleasant later, but the beginning of his arc is promising.

While the idea of a caste system persisting with such rigidity in the future seems odd at first, Bentley manages to make it feel plausible. Harmony and its colonies are the isolated outgrowth of a cult that fled the rest of humanity long ago, and most people aren't allowed access to sophisticated technology or information about the outside world. Harmony's propaganda maintains that human life originated there by divine will and that no other people exist, in part to ensure that no one thinks that another way of life is possible. The entire system is a religious commune writ large, isolated from the outside world in a way that ordinary religious retreats could never dream of. Despite that advantage, however, the structure has its weaknesses. More and more people are being born with blurred caste marks as they move further from the precise genetic programming that originally bred fetuses for things like heterosexuality and calm dispositions-- along with the obvious caste marks--and any deformity condemns them to be locked away in asylums as unfit abominations. Meanwhile, the media wants to be its own caste, free of the restrictions of the others, and the planet itself is throwing forth natural disasters with ever-greater force.

The strains on the caste system from outside are paired neatly with those from people who are trapped. Even the Temple caste, the holders of power, are trapped in their own way; they are forbidden to marry and can be rotated away to different Temples to keep them from forming bonds with their congregations. Military members automatically have their marriages voided if one partner is maimed too much to fight again, whether the healthy spouse still loves the damaged one or not. Those with deformed marks, called Loods (from log of wood, apparently) can be yanked from their families and abused. A scene in which their living conditions and deaths are exposed is honestly moving and provides impetus for the caste system to change; some books take caste systems as bad on the face of it because they remove choices, but Bentley takes the effort to show how it's actively causing people to suffer. Each and every injustice feels like a natural consequence of each problem piling on the others, and that makes the world feel more strongly realistic.

Sissy's transition from an anonymous worker to High Priestess of Harmony after the previous one dies in a Temple accident also helps on that front. She doesn't understand why the priests and priestesses all do "fancy things" like wear shoes, is uncomfortable with the level of technology, and genuinely misses her family. Watching her slowly take up power is intriguing, especially as she realizes that the position of High Priestess gives her veto power over quite a few major decisions, including those made by the planet-leading High Council. It would have been nice to see her at any point abuse her power after years of not having any, or even use that power for pseudo-selfish motives like helping her family to give her some sort of flaw, but her responsibilities seem to keep her too busy to think of such things. Laud Gregor's attempts to act as a counterweight to her are also intriguing as he reverses her journey in some ways; he starts out with full confidence in his actions and the ability to make his word law, but power slips away as more and more people abandon the tradition upon which his life is grounded. He's one of the few morally ambiguous figures at first, though he tends to slip into cartoon villain mode later on.

The red pen: 

Sissy herself is a friend to all living things, rescuer of small animals, guardian to little girl acolytes, avatar of perfect morals and connection with the earth....and honestly a nauseating stick figure when she's not actively involved in a power struggle. She rescues a cat and uses her magic prophecy-voice to declare that it's a symbolic refugee, representing the people who the Temple helps. Her acolytes are all cute little girls who love to play and love taking care of her giant menagerie of rescued animals, many of whom have more personality than the girls themselves. When her eyes glow silver with Harmony's power, everyone leaps to obey her....except for Penelope, the woman who would have been High Priestess if Gregor hadn't found Sissy. This really could have been an interesting dynamic, but Penelope seems to have been stuck on the personality of setting of "mean girl recently escaped from high school." She belittles Sissy and stoops to tricks like ordering Sissy robes in unflattering colors and shoes that don't quite fit. This pattern keeps repeating ad infinitum until someone close to Penelope dies and she suddenly writes a saccharine note spelling out her jealousy and emotions and motivations, humbling herself to be used as a tool in Sissy's hand.

Offering an alliance would be one thing, but the note itself is rather shallow and feels like a plot point meant to signify Penelope's maturity. Given that the woman is twice Sissy's age and has had to care for children in a part of society that doesn't value her family, her initial level of immaturity is so unrealistic that the whiplash is even worse. This is the sort of plot twist found in dull YA novels: the bully realizes the error of her ways and admits that she was only mean out of jealousy and insecurity, but now she realizes that the protagonist is a Good Person and wants to be friends if she can possibly be forgiven. Sissy already has visions and wisdom that other people can't access; making Penelope (and occasionally Laud Gregor) emotionally stunted to such a degree seems like a ploy to make Sissy shine more by comparison, and it gives the book an irritatingly simplistic flavor. Scraping out moral ambiguity that way takes a lot away from the story, which is already a little too juvenile in the way it frames Sissy as the cure to all ills while possessing no discernible character flaws.

Some of the ways in which Sissy tries to become competent unfortunately just don't make sense. She knows that Laud Gregor is slipping things past her, so she gets her older brother to help her read the forms she's signed...because apparently an intelligent plotter trying to get away with things leaves copies of important documents with signatures on them in the quarters of the person he's trying to keep in ignorance. Her brother also has no education in interpreting complex legal documents, but somehow they always manage to figure out just enough to guess what's coming or get ammunition for a confrontation. Working with Jake, her love interest and bodyguard, makes this somewhat more plausible; he's been educated off-planet and knows how to analyze things and sniff out propaganda. Jake could have been a more useful outsider lens to show Harmony's society more clearly, but his character has his own set of problems.

Jake, to put it bluntly, reads like a collection of stereotypes about men shoved into one character. He's impetuous, prone to disobeying orders, can't resist a competition, and muses at length about his immediate superior's "pretty tits" before deliberate using them as props to help him stand up. The two characters later sleep together, though I can't fathom why; even Jayne of Firefly had a less dramatic case of testosterone poisoning than Jake does. In any other book I would assume that all this was a way to set him up as a minor villain who might later try to seduce or sexually assault the heroine, but instead he's the secondary lead. His particular brand of pushy judgment, the way he assumes that he can fix Harmony by berating people, is especially unrealistic for an agent slipped into such a paranoid society. The author seems to have confused arrogance with confidence, and the lost distinction makes Jake unappealing on several levels.

The author's personal politics also seem to be making odd appearances that detract from the story. The people who wrote the Covenant used embryos and artificial wombs to breed many of the planet's original children; they tried to weed out undesirable traits like free thinking and homosexuality. Leaving aside the other issues of their Horrible Backstory Deeds, this makes the people who founded the colonies manipulative at best. The most objectionable thing, however, is apparently the artificial wombs, which are "unnatural" enough to make Sissy shudder and Jake agree, because the CSS (Confederated Star System) has mostly banned them, even though we never hear why they're wrong. Changes in Harmony's society are often radical and bizarre, with just as little explanation of how they came about. Priests and priestesses were originally supposed to marry and stay faithful, but somehow that turned into the rule that they were never allowed to marry, with the result that the priesthood is full of near-incestuous unions--since there are so few of them that inbreeding is likely--and people were secretly marrying each other in spirit. The final result makes for some touching scenes, but the reasons just seem to trail off.

Other plot points just aren't plausible. If the Covenant is so sacred and central to society that the original stone tablets were kept under the altar of the Crystal Temple, why weren't copies carved and displayed everywhere to hold everyone faithful? Only a Temple archive seems to have older copies, while people assume that they know what it says without looking at it, which would be fine if the Covenant was a whole book, but it seems to be more of an expanded version of the Ten Commandments, maybe the length of a single book of the Bible. People would at least be quoting snippets of it unless the church had a medieval Catholic-esque policy in which only the priests can read the language, but that's not the case. More generally, the whole system of Harmony as a live being with specific goals and interests tends to suggests two interesting possibilities, one of a Gaia-esque figure and one of a planet that has evolved to sentience over time and exists in symbiosis with humans. Either idea could be promising, but Bentley lets it float; Sissy has the power to calm natural disasters and to know what Harmony really means, and apparently that level of special is all that matters.

All in all, Harmony has a lot of potential that could have been executed with more grace. Every glimpse we had of the Military caste, or the delicate interplay between Temple and Nobles, or even the management of Loods who can think and want to be free, was tantalizing; however, Bentley pulls back from each of those shots to spend more time wallowing around in Sissy's angst and Jake's desire to stay on Harmony when his duty is to go home. Those storylines are played out while more interesting ones die on the vine, and I have no interest in reading further. 

Prospects: The sequel, Enigma, came out in 2009. Bentley doesn't seem to have released anything else in the series.

Enjoyed this? Try: 
~The Seventh Swordsman trilogy by Dave Duncan. It's straight-up barbarian fantasy instead of sci-fi, but it shares the seven-part caste system. People in Duncan's universe can move up in caste over time with impressive application of skill, but the rigidity of people's roles within their ranks and castes definitely feels similar. 

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