April 28, 2009

Tales from the Completist: "The Nulapeiron Sequence," by John Meaney

(Just like anyone else who is a lover of great books, I find myself sometimes with a desire to become a "completist" of certain authors; that is, to have read every book that author has ever written. This series of essays chronicles that attempt. Don't forget, a list of all the other books reviewed as part of this series can be found on CCLaP's main book review page.)

Paradox, by John Meaney

Context, by John Meaney

Resolution, by John Meaney

Paradox (2000)
Context (2002)
Resolution (2005)
By John Meaney

So what do you think -- is it possible to adequately analyze a sprawling 1,500-page science-fiction epic in a single thousand-word essay? Because that's exactly what I'll be trying to do today, after recently finishing the massive three-book "Nulapeiron Sequence" from author John Meaney, yet another set of titles from the big box of books I received not too long ago from respected genre publisher Pyr, which I've been slowly making my way through this spring. (And my thanks again to the hardworking publicity staff at Pyr for sending this pile of back-titles in the first place; they were certainly under no obligation to do such a thing for some snotty critic no one's ever heard of, so I very much appreciate it.) And in fact, just like many of these older titles the company ended up sending, Meaney too is a member of the so-called "British New Wave" of SF authors who made such a splash in the early 2000s, and prompted American companies like Pyr to reprint all their books here in the US years later; although the first two books of this sequence (Paradox and Context) were originally published in the UK in 2000 and 2002 respectively, they and the third book (Resolution) didn't come out here until all at once in 2006.

And then here's the other thing to understand right away, that this series is what's known as a "space opera," which many non-fans of the genre mistakenly believe to be the only kind of SF there is -- you know, "Star Wars" and "Star Trek" type stuff, where the whole point is to construct a grand saga that relies much more on plot than character development, and that leans heavily on such genre tropes as sleek spaceships, sexy aliens, intergalactic wars and more. (This is then opposed, to cite a good example, to the last book from Pyr I reviewed, Justina Robson's Silver Screen, a standalone volume where the point is merely to use speculative elements from the real world of modern science to construct the same kind of tight character-based tale as any other contemporary novel. And speaking of that review, by the way, to clear up the matter for good once and for all -- Dear Mister Jeff VanderMeer Who I Actually Do Like And Respect, I do not really believe that you're p-ssed off at me, just like I don't really believe that every single SF author from the early 2000s is literally drinking buddies with every single other SF author from the early 2000s. They were both jokes, albeit badly-written ones that apparently a lot of people didn't get.) And just to avoid further snippy emails from disgruntled fanboys, let me also clarify that there are all kinds of other SF styles than the two already mentioned; there are also 'world-building' stories, for example, where the whole point is to create a believable scientific guide to societies and planets that don't actually exist (see for example my past review of Ursula K Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness), and then there are so-called "New Weird" stories that artfully blend several different genres into a brand-new hybrid, and even more that I'm not going to bother going into. Whew! Digression over! Now stop sending me angry emails!

Of course, these aren't mutually exclusive categories either; for example, you could argue that the Nulapeiron Sequence (named after the planet where it takes place) is as much a world-building saga as it is a space opera, a look at a "cavern planet" that humans colonized over 1,200 years before the current story takes place (and over 1,500 years from our own times), where a population of over ten billion live in a series of vertical underground quasi-feudal kingdoms, and where a strict caste system determines how near or far away one lives from the surface. (And yes, just like Isaac Asimov's classic The Caves of Steel, this population is terrified of going up to the actual surface of the planet, a detail which figures heavily into the militaristic plotline driving the books themselves.) In fact, this is a big reason why the original Paradox made such an impact to begin with when it first came out, was for the care and attention Meaney paid in creating such a fantastical yet believable world, and especially for all the ingenious ways he mixed technology and biology into this society's details -- from giant hollow bugs that serve as transport vehicles, to "living architecture" which can grow its own doors and hallways, to the so-called "Oracles" who can view possible futures but only by committing acts of horrific sexual violence upon the slaves charged with caring for them.

Why yes, if this is reminding you of another classic SF series, Frank Herbert's "Dune" books, you're not alone -- both are detailed looks at far-future societies that have mostly done away with synthetic technology, within a semi-enlightened population that has gotten rid of its need for religion* but not for elaborate Shakespearean aristocracies. And also just like "Dune," Meaney's story is centered around an unassuming teenage boy who eventually grows into a planet-saving messiah-like figure; in this case, the merchant-son Tom Corcorigan, whose rise is mostly predicated on his natural mastery over the real-life mathematical discipline known as logics, which in the universe of Nulapeiron has become elevated almost to a religion unto itself, and is the main activity from which the rest of their society is curled around. (Confused? Think of yet another SF saga I've covered here before, David Louis Edelman's "Jump 225" series, of the way that free-market capitalism has in their far-future world become the "New Classicism," worshipped in the same unquestioned way that we currently worship the theories of the ancient Greeks.)

Ah, but see, everything I've just described is merely the background for the story itself; because much like the Dune universe's Paul Atreides, our hero Tom is a restless and inquisitive soul, which is what leads him first into trouble and then into understanding and eventually to a seismic shift in how the entire society on Nulapeiron works. Because near the beginning of the entire saga, through a series of mischievous acts, Tom ends up acquiring a sort of five-sense recording device from a mysterious stranger, which turns out to have etched in it the entire history of humans' flight to Nulapeiron back in the 2200s in the first place, how it happened and why it happened and why the information was then suppressed, and why it is that the idea of the current population re-learning the story is such a dangerous one. And so it's these near-future flashback scenes that make up an entire half of the storyline, every other chapter throughout all three books, as we watch humans first discover and then master the bizarre undimensional concept known as "mu-space," which turns out to be the key to traveling between planets at a speed faster than light. And without giving too much away, this is essentially what makes up the overall plotline of the three-book epic; Tom learning more and more about humanity's spacefaring past, Tom realizing more and more that Nulapeiron's caste system needs to be gotten rid of, and then the messy reality that his planet-wide revolt leaves behind after the bloodshed is all over, as well as the new threats their world now faces from outside forces after the revolution is finished.

But unfortunately there's a problem with all this as well, ironically enough the same problem seen in the Dune series; that while the first book in both epics are legitimate marvels that have rightly earned them both cult statuses within the SF community, it's almost as if both authors completely blew their creative wads on them (to use a gross yet apt metaphor), leaving afterwards a strong public outcry for sequels but with not a lot of ideas for what to do in those sequels. And in this you might want to think of a much more well-known example, the so-called "Matrix Trilogy" from the Wachowski Brothers also in the early 2000s; because as anyone who's seen those three movies knows, it's not really a trilogy at all, but rather one brilliant movie that became a surprise success and then two other related ones that were quickly sh-t out afterwards, creating a pretentious and overblown mess that's almost the opposite of what made the original so loved, which tries to retroactively shoehorn the elegant first tale into an overly complicated grand mythology created for the second and third, when in fact it was precisely the lack of this pretentious overblown grand mythology that made the original such a hit to begin with. (And by the way, wanna know why the projects that include such a messy grand mythology from page one are always flops? See The Chronicles of Riddick and get back to me.)

And so too is it the case with Meaney's saga, with a part two and three that hinge on a muddily-conceived concept not even mentioned in part one (a sorta hive-mind baddie called the "Blight" that Meaney compares to a galaxy-sized malignant virus), and that rely on Meaney awkwardly undoing many of the developments that ended part one (for example, re-establishing the aristocracy, after the entire point of part one was to get rid of it), introducing romantic yearnings between existing characters that weren't even hinted at in the original volume, etc etc etc. And that's a shame, because the original Paradox really is a remarkable and highly thought-provoking book; too bad that Meaney seemed to so profoundly run out of narrative steam when it came to the other two volumes of the series. (And yes, by the way, I too agree with the complaint that many other online reviewers have now made, that I got awfully sick and tired of every single character just happening to share the same specific personal interests as the author himself. "Oh, look, another character who's obsessively into martial arts! Oh, gee, another problem solved with a long-distance run and freehold rock climb! What a freaking surprise!")

So in the end, then, I guess I recommend the same thing with this series as I do with the Dune books (and the Matrix movies, and the Star Wars saga for that matter) -- that the first volume is well worth your time, the others not so much, and that ultimately it's up to us as audience members to decide exactly how we wish to enjoy a sprawling SF series, despite that author wishing that we would simply eat up every word with an insatiable hunger. Just because someone wants us to buy into every single detail of a fictional universe doesn't mean we have to; but just because some of it is crappy doesn't mean we should throw it all out either. That I think is the most important lesson to learn from the Nulapeiron Sequence as a whole, and a lesson crucial to understand in order to become a SF fan to begin with. It's something to keep in mind whenever approaching any overblown genre epic, but especially in this case.

Read even more about Paradox: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

Read even more about Context: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

Read even more about Resolution: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

*And as a final digression, may I please patiently explain this yet again to all you science-fiction authors out there? If you create a post-religious society for your own fictional universe, you cannot substitute scientific words within your characters' cursing without it coming across as anything else but immature, unintentionally funny horsesh-t. After all, it's the religious aspect of it all that defines cursing in the first place; that when you have a society that mostly believes in God, it becomes a legitimately shocking and offensive thing to damn and belittle that god in front of others. That's the entire point of cursing, and you completely miss the point when using such ridiculous phrases as, "Damn you to scientifically-proven random entropy! CHAOS ALMIGHTY, DAMN YOU TO ENTROPY!" Your attention to this matter is greatly appreciated.

Filed by Jason Pettus at 4:39 PM, April 28, 2009. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |