Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Forge of Heaven

C. J. Cherryh

Sequel to Hammerfall, and much more satisfying on about every level. Foremost is the better situating of the setting, with thirty pages of enclopediac detail explainingn the worldbuilding of the series, and putting the happengs of the first novel in a much more reasonable and better understood light. It’s a book that manages to redeem the earlier flawed work extensively, both through providing more context as well as moving the story on to a more interesting place,. Besides the invented future that we’re shown here being interesting in its own right--although it is--it fuels a good layout for the intrigue of the novel. In the bureaucratic-heavy setting there’s a complex interplay of station governor against Outsider world interest against central Earth control against unknown alien presence against immortal survivors from the first book. It’s a dance of factions in a highly complex and enjoyable manner, particularly in the extent to which different groups have overlaping interests and different timescales. The scenario benefits from taking the issue of "The Gene Wars" in a more extensive treatment than it usually gets in science fiction. Rather than show the initial struggle between self-modifying and the group opposed to genetic change the story explores some of the long term consequences of after the latter faction has won, and the way they have to continually work to keep political stability and social coherence going. There’s a sophisticated examination of the interplay of police, radicals and strategic competition, as well as the momentum carried by bureaucracies harmful and beneficial. As well, Cherryh continues to be one of the few speculative fiction authors that delivers a believable and thought out pattern of economics.

Some flaws occur. The beginning third of the novel lacks real urgency--a common issue with Cherryh’s novels--and there are a couple character arcs that feel excessive to the existing story. The bratty Freethinking-affiliated daughter for instance--her escapades later force a rather powerful character moment for her father, but as an actual story it runs on too much and doesn’t benefit from receiving a point of view. It’s also disapointing that the aliens remain basically ciphers here. The history of their interactions gives a fair bit more credibility, but the actual nature of the species, their goals, intentions, interest, politics remain a blank slate. It’s disapointing to not have them fleshed out to any great extent, to the degree that characters in-universe wonder without being able to answer what they’re after. Disapointing both because I know Cherryh could deliver a fascinating picture here, and because the current form leaves the underlying situation of human intrigue fueled by fairly arbitrary alien behavior.

Overall a well plotted and at times quite intense science fiction piece. The ending third, in particular, frames some of the most effective writing I’ve seen from Cherryh. It also makes good use of engaging the narrative with a complex future that’s very different from both the Foreigner setting and Alliance-Union.

Better than: The Warriors’ Apprentice by Lois McMaster Bujold
Worse than: Destroyer of World by C. J. Cherryh

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