Stone by Adam Roberts
Very different from his other books I've read, which is in itself a recommendation to Roberts' skill. As before, he's also very good with language and crafting a complex setting, and brings in a mix of hard science to a tight focus on a distant social atmosphere.
This story features an individual in a utopian future of material prosperity and individual freedom, where absence of constraint and education mean there's also virtually no crime. The protagonist is one of the one in a billion off-cases, being disturbed enough to murder people for psychosexual gratification. At the time the novel begins zie (adopting gender-neutral language for this review, matching ambiguity in the book as explored bellow) is in a prison for several such murders. The story begins when zie is contacted by a mysterious source offering to break her out of prison if she'll in return depopulate a specific planet, killing sixty million people. There's no immediate answer given as to who they are or why they want this killing to occur, the story then concerns the physical challenge of escape, evading detection and various encounters, while also proceeding the larger challenge of who is behind the assignment and whether to go through with the mass murder.
I didn't realize it while reading this book, but Stone in many ways plays out with the level of creepiness as if Fire had kept the sociopathic narrator as the main point of view. It's an interesting choice to play with the viewpoint being so fundamentally unbalanced and destructive, amidst an environment that's far less violent than our current world. There's a bit of a credibility strain in the main premise--excepting that someone that went out of their way to kill others just as a type of experiment would have any moral hesitation about killing a larger number of strangers for the sake of securing their own self-interest. On the whole the different elements are effectively balanced, with the slow deterioration of an already damaged individual across the story.
Mixed with this layout is the environment of the t'T, the utopian interstellar environment. Assessing whether it's a better world than our own is an interesting question. They have less violence, no real poverty, and a individuals do less damage to eachother. At the same time, emerging in this environment people appear to have a fundamental lack of ethics or real altruism. They're not cruel and they don't (for the overwhelming majority) have any desire to harm others, yet what emerges isn't really a society, more a collection of individuals without permanent social ties. It's in many ways the ultimate fantasy of individual affirmation and possibility writ large, yet it's also rendered as a cold and fairly unappealing milieu, and reads as a call for turning from the whole Heinlein-esque libertarian strand in science fiction, individual rights and core egotistic narratives writ large across the entire setting. In this regard, making the "hero" of the account so damaged and harmful to others works at an even deeper level. It's not just an emotionally stunted antihero we're presented with but a full on sociopath that enacts mass murder, and one of the main accomplishments of the story is the way it makes this perspective comprehensible without glamorizing it or making it appear edgy.
Gender has a major presence in the book, particularly in its mutability. This future, like a number of other distant high tech environemnts is one where gender can be easily altered, and the population continually varies across male to female as a part of the life cycle. How this element works is particularly in centering questions of power, identity and emotions. The narrative plays at several points with the gender we might expect the protagonist to be, and by the end works to break down assumptions and stark assumptions. This element connects somewhat to the ubiquitous presence of technology within individual lives and the instability of the larger sociopathic self and the society, and there's a possible association there that I'm not entirely comfortable with. On the whole, however, both elements work pretty well in tangent, emphasizing a level of instability in the understanding of society while also making a highly coherent setting and plot. In this element I take Roberts to be portraying the instability and fluid ambiguity at work in any society, including our current one. That makes for a pretty strong critique of a whole range of conventional political attitudes and narratives in "the real world" along with science fiction, and it's to the story's benefit that it can pull this element off without being remotely preachy.
One of the questions in all this worldbuilding is if it's intended as a commentary or critique on the Culture. I know Roberts is familiar with Banks' work, and there seem to be a couple of strong similarities, while also diverging a lot--no supergenius AIs, for instance, a much more fragmented environment, a lot harsher interpretation of the level of ethics and awareness formed by people in this environment. It's a little hard to see whether the distinctive elements of the t'T are meant as a more realistic implementation of the Culture, or simply an independent take that happens to have some similar elements. Reading it as a criticism of the Culture it feels a little unfocused, a little haphazard in the harsher deconstructive elements, in part because the protagonist is such an anomaly and the larger problem in the society remains a plot twist only uncovered in the last fifteen pages, making for less opportunity to follow through on the implications. Taken as only peripherally commenting on Banks shows it as the more effective book, and it may be my judgement on the effectiveness of the whole thought experiment that makes me inclined to downplay its meta-literary commentary (always a danger with Roberts, given how concerned his work typically is with past literature science fiction and non). In any case, I think the novel is stronger than just being a riff on the Culture series, in stronger and weaker elements.
There are some issues with quality, however. While the main setup is excellent and the larger themes work well, the section-by-section layout of the story isn't always ideal. The coldness of the whole story and unlikability of the main character is rather the point, but it does leave a bit too much alienation for feeling invested in the first person exploration of an unfamiliar environment. More problematic is the level of the plot--there are simply too many points where the main character reminds hirself on the mission zie was charged with and speculates as to what agency might be wanting to kill off the planet. The true solution was never within this character's ability to figure out and it feels less like advancing the mystery than filling time. It's interesting, brings in a lot of nice little details and complex questions. However it feels a bit too long for the existing story, and there's too much continued return to the basic question of who is involved and why. The final answer does manage a satisfying and believable resolution, but the process getting there is a bit strained. There is room for some improvement in the layout, but Stone remains a unique and powerful piece of speculative fiction.
Similar and better than: Blindsight by Peter Watts
Similar and worse than: Use of Weapons by Iain M. Banks