Thursday, March 28, 2013

Horizons

Rating: 3 stars
Length: Snappily short (336 pages)
Publication: October 30, 2007 from Tor Science Fiction
Premise: Ahni Huang has been ordered to restore balance by killing her twin brother's murderer. The trail leads her to New York Up, one of Earth's enormous space stations, and people there seem uncannily able to predict her movements. She is soon caught up in a struggle where she can't see the sides or even all of the board, but the stakes for he future are dangerously high.
Warnings: murder of civilian children, onscreen suicide
Recommendation: If you're interested in space-to-earth sociopolitical relationships and tensions, this may be just the right thing. It can get a little confused in places, but it's tightly-paced, vivid, and often quite fun.

Why this one has such visible thought put into it:

When Ahni enters New York Up fom the space elevator, it's immediately clear both that she's entering a world utterly foreign to her experience and that the reader will be oriented on the fly along with her. Little details about nausea and dizziness and trying to lock down a subjective definition of "up" help cement the opening sequence in near-reality; Rosenblum keeps turning elegant phrases like "she was barely anchored to the floor by a shadow of down." The scenery alone, however, pulls together dozens of tiny details to reinforce the way this world works so differently. When Ahni winds up in the greenhouse that feeds so much of the population, she's disoriented from the moment the elevator doors open. She's been strapped into the low-gravity chamber and is already uneasy about the way that feels, but the greenhouse overwhelms her with the sheer brightness of the light inside-- it seemed like an unpredictable place to flee the people following her, but the searing light and low gravity make her vulnerable. When she has the time to really process her surroundings, she's struck by the size of everything, the enormous leaves-- the shapes are familiar from her days of gardening with her grandmother, but it's more like a bizarre jungle than anything in her normal frame of reference.

One of the best scenes comes when Ahni gets to witness and join a game of scrum, a micro-gravity game that most closely resembles a cross between hockey and soccer. The inhabitants love the chance to burn off aggression by thrusting themselves off of taut cables and launching into midair after the ball. Each play requires them to think in three dimensions and be careful about the possibility of collisions that would stop their momentum and leave them in need of being towed back to a perch. It helps reinforce the way that people on the station see competence very differently and arrange priorities accordingly. Being at the top of the gravity well and at the edge of humanity's frontier seems to make people more adventurous: they're not romanticized as bold pioneers, but they are willing to reevaluate old modes of thought and go with what works instead of clinging to the fears and goals that rest down on the surface. This becomes relevant at all levels of the story, from the stationers liking soy cheese grown in orbit over the imported surface food to the larger rejection of Earth prejudices and military forces trying to force their way into the orbital way of life.

By far the strongest element of Horizons rests in the sociopolitical relationships between Earth and the space stations and the manipulations that try to change (or quietly twist) the status quo. The people of the space stations see themselves as a separate political entity, and that pushes the resentment against downsider tourists to new heights all the time. People from the Earth's surface want the novelty of new surroundings and zero-gravity sex, but they fail to see the space stations as distinct political entities with different rules and expectations. These tensions aren't helped by the way people who have spent much time in low gravity tend to have lighter bones; they adjust to orbital conditions and become reluctant to venture back to the crushing pressure of the earth.The space stations want to be able to drop large rocks close to their orbit to pull out the raw materials to expand, but people down on Earth are worried that one of those rocks could all too easily be dropped on a city. When the concern is reasonable, it also means that the stations have to import lots of raw materials from the surface of the Earth via the space elevators, and such a process is both expensive and inefficient. The narrative does a strong job of conveying the way that economic concerns tie into and shape the political ones; each point of view is convincing but also concise.

Moreover, the people of the stations aren't all unified; most are pushing for independence, but others are worried about the livelihoods that will be lost when tourism from downsiders stops for a while, or about the possibility of war. The few town hall-esque meetings that we see come off very much as the debates of real people, batting around opinions but also planning in advance to set up powerful rhetorical moments or make sure that a radical point of view has time to be presented. Citizens of the stations are often sincere and focused, but they're not above grandstanding or trying to spin the debate by defining the tone of the conversation early on. They're also intriguingly distant from Earth--more than being bitter about the tourists, they simply don't see why they should care, and younger citizens don't care if they never make it to the bottom of the gravity well. Ahni is from the Huang family and was thus raised in high-ranking Taiwanese culture, with all the appreciation for history that that entails. She speaks seventeen languages, including formal Mandarin and ancient variations of several living tongues, and gets in some of her smoothest fishing for information during a formal tea ceremony. Her position in feeling rooted to history while being so drawn to the future that she can't stay out of space is an intriguing one, all the more so because it runs as a quiet current throughout the book and then plays a believably strong role in shaping the conclusion.

The red pen:

Despite all of this lovely worldbuilding and smooth thematic development, Horizons has an oddly unfinished feeling in places. The main villains of the piece have the odd habit of showing up for long enough to have a conversation with Ahni in an attempt to get her on their side, throwing some level of tantrum when she refuses, and then not appearing again until much later, either right before or right after the climax of the story. It's all the more frustrating because Ahni has a personal history with all three of them; the emotional resonance ought to be almost effortless, but it's as though her emotional reactions are slightly muted by a pane of glass. She ends up having the best interactions with the fourth party in this situation, one who she's never met before things are edging up to an explosion point. While that character ultimately ends up being perhaps the best one in the story, it's difficult to share Ahni's devastation at the betrayal of people she's known for long-- not only are those long relationships muted, but minor characters who play incidental or purely plot-moving roles often spark with more quirks and depth. This is especially true for the people Ahni knew in childhood; you want to like and hate and understand them, but they don't fill up the emotional space required to do that.

Despite the occasional snapmany of the minor characters seem.....not quite at ease in their story story arcs. Some have a lot of potential but sort of trail off, or have wobbly introductions followed by enormous blockbuster revelation scenes that seem to come out of nowhere with no foreshadowing at all. Hearing that one character is unexpectedly related to another, or that a seemingly harmless representative of political faction is plotting mess devastation, should hit home, but instead it stirs up mild interest and the urge to not along until the explanation is done. When a character has spent the entire book trying to track down the source of incendiary rumors that are pushing the space stations to the edge of rebellion and stirring up public rage, one of sources is revealed (in a very short scene) to be a minor character who we've met once. When Ahni needs help getting from one station to another for urgent conversations, a grumpy minor character has showed up just in time to play chauffeur and tell her constantly that she's crazy while never mounting any serious opposition to her doing those crazy things. One minor character, a little girl Ahni meets on the shuttle, seems to exist for no other reason than to be bratty and butt into Ahni's life because she's lonely; the two eventually witness the outbreak of a riot and the girl serves as a way to draw off some local security forces from making the situation worse, but then we never see her again. There's this weird problem of disconnection from these people because in the end, it's hard to tell who matters and the ratio of plot-relevance to pagetime is skewed all over the place.

By far the most tiresome is Dane Nilsson, who exists in the odd place of incredibly central to all the plot threads but dull in many of his interactions. He's occupied in hiding a secret that would lead to his death and the deaths of everyone he's trying to protect if it's revealed, and that secret ties into the urgency of the stations declaring independence from Earth: if the stations aren't so trapped by Earth's power, the odds that someone will discover the secret and have the power to bring Earth forces to bear on it are much lower. This dynamic is interesting and could easily have his own fears pushing him into haste even though he knows that a slow approach is safer, but that angle doesn't show up as much as it could. Instead, he and Ahni have almost immediate chemistry when they meet, can't stop thinking about each other, and embark on a relationship of sorts that seems to exist because....they both understand that the stations are unique world-places? They share the secret, which is apparently an open secret for like half the people living on New York Up permanently? It eats pagetime without providing zest, which is unfortunate; giving the romance a pass and devoting more time to the emotionally intense relationships between Ahni and the antagonists might been more satisfying, as well as made Ahni's sense of connection to the stations more about her identity and less about love.

Granted, that love has some potential at a mental level; Ahni can't sense Dane's emotions because he's one of the few people she's ever met with a higher empathy rating than hers, though that rating is falsified in his file to be low. Unfortunately, the empathy ratings and powers have so much potential, but it's almost as though they aren't consistently present. Ahni sometimes uses her abilities to good effect in tense conversations, figuring out the other party's intentions or the extent of their knowledge based on small emotional reactions. In other conversations, Ahni either senses nothing despite her high rating or doesn't seem to be trying to use her powers to figure out what's going on. This could make sense or be easier to ignore, but many of the sudden revelations that Ahni discovers are from people she's known for many years....and since these things tend to be rooted in slow manipulations or long-standing resentments that these people have discussion before, it's hard to believe that she never had an inkling when a person let emotions slip in an unguarded moment. The empathy isn't used or even present during Ahni and Dane's sex, and it could have been a compelling level of intimacy in much the same way that we saw in Technogenesis. Their relationship, like so many of the emotional ties and disappointments throughout the novel, exists in brief scenes that don't seem to feel quite vivid enough to engage much emotion in the reader.

On the whole, this hits exactly some of the things that work so well in science fiction: extrapolation of current trends, commentary on the nature of humanity, even a graceful look at the sociological trends of the future and how those trends interact with the available technology. Unfortunately, it also tends toward providing emotional richness through dramatic revelations and reversals that don't have the introductory space to explode in the way that they could.

Prospects: This novel wraps up on a solid note and doesn't seem to have any sequels; unfortunately, it's the most recent book of hers that I can find. Thoughtful worldbuilding like this in space settings doesn't come along quite often enough, and I'll be keeping an eye out for her name in the future. Her last book before Horizons was Water Rites.

Enjoyed this? Try:
~The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein. It explores some of the same issues of independence in space, as well as the joys of living at the top of the gravity well.

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