by Elizabeth Bear
Spectra Books, 2006
Elizabeth Bear's Carnival is an old-fashioned political intrigue complete with artificial intelligences, mysterious aliens, and a planet where Amazon-women and their harems of combat-hardened men are about to have their annual week-long street party.
Bear honors the history of the literature with many of her tropes. There are fun connections to the interplanetary adventures of early science fiction, but this is also a fantasy of societal alternatives reminiscent of the sixties or seventies. Carnival, however, is no mere homage. This is fresh, sophisticated material.
Bear builds her story on a rich future-history in which artificial intelligences rule most of humanity. These are no self-evolved computer minds; this is not a singularity-driven story — these AI's are the result of a supreme act of terrorism by environmentalists. Reaching something passably close to sentience, the machine-beings (Governors) were programmed to cull and to control the human race, to restore balance on Earth and prevent out-of-control malthusian malfeasance for the rest of time. Bear throws some amusing and implausible twists in this future history, yet she imagines this world with enough conviction that the story works. Within an AI-managed paradise, art becomes the height of human achievement — and the only interstellar currency that matters. In a profoundly non-democratic political structure, and with what appears to be a sort of universal middle-class, Earth settles into a comfortable fifties-style paternalism where women are second class citizens and homosexuality is a career-ending secret.
That's Earth, but Carnival takes place on New Amazonia — Earth's inverse image.
The colony of New Amazonia, like many of the extra-solar colonies, was founded by those fleeing the tyranny of the Governors. Women rule all, and the male slaves are divvied up into those who must fight each other in the gladatorial pits for the right to reproduce, and those who are "gentle" — safe slaves for the house, homosexuals all.
The narrative begins as a diplomatic intrigue, veers into James Bondian antics, and culminates in a high-sci-fi Deus ex Machina, yet never loses touch with the characters.
The mission begins with Michaelangelo Kusanagi-Jones and Vincent Katherinessen, diplomats from Earth, ostensibly assigned to return precious artwork stolen from New Amazonia in a previous armed conflict. Earth, we learn, had tried to reconquer New Amazonia but had been mysteriously foiled. The stick broken, these diplomats bring a bag full of carrots. (And a bunch more sticks in their luggage.)
Yes, these names are cumbersome, and it takes Bear several chapters to find a way of referring to them that doesn't tangle the reader's mental tongue in unhappy pretzels. Fortunately, their counterpart on New Amazonia has an easier name: Lesa.
It's a good thing Bear handles the artful politics of innuendo and veiled threat more cleanly than she does character names. The early chapters are driven by a conflict of divergent social norms, embodied by characters that have their own complicated relationships to their respective societies, professions, and also to each other.
On New Amazonia, men have no status. From their position of strength, the rulers of New Amazonia uttered a flat refusal to deal with any male diplomats. This apparently put Earth in a bind, for in the patriarchy of the old country, women have no status. The compromise: Michaelangelo and Vincent: homosexual males. Indeed, they had been lovers once, to the extreme detriment of their respective careers. Now, after a long ago betrayal, and years of marginal service, they are reunited for this one last mission that may salvage their reputations — or force them into terrible betrayal.
Lesa, meanwhile, rather likes her men. And she takes no joy in the blood games that men must survive in order to take their place in this women's world — particularly where her very intelligent computer-geek son is concerned.
Each of these characters brings conflicted emotions, ambivalent loyalties, and ulterior motives to an already volatile situation.
Bear uses the major societal differences to set her characters — and the novel — in motion; but draws energy from minor differences as well. In AI-governed Earth, vegetarianism has been enforced so long it has become as much a part of internalized morality as "Thou Shalt Not Murder." On New Amazonia, these women enjoy a good steak. Bear winks at the reader behind these differences of morality, never taking sides, but neither suggesting that the moralities are unimportant. Beliefs are central to her characters in ways that only become more urgent as the story unfolds. And, one feels, beliefs may be central to the author as well.
Eventually the veils are lifted from the threats, trusts are broken, and blood is spilled.
We learn that Michaelangelo has a desperate purpose, that Vincent has unexpected (and possibly unreliable) allies, that the mystery of New Amazonia's military victory is a secret with implications for all of humanity.
Bear builds a compelling and complex plot that gradually gets its hooks into the reader and doesn't let go. Bear introduces intriguing, three dimensional characters that are at the very top of their game: enhanced with technology and the best training their societies offer, these are superheroes with all-too-human failings. The rich background and the traditional mysteries of science fiction enhance the texture of this novel sufficiently to satisfy most genre readers. The writing is clear: sometimes beautiful, sometimes vivid, and never an obstacle to the story. If it weren't for some failings, this would be a shoo-in for just about every award the field has to offer, including the Tiptree. (It's nominated for the Philip K. Dick award.)
Actually, despite the homosexuality of two main characters — which blossoms into an exciting love affair (as any love affair laced with the promise of betrayal must be) — this book is profoundly not about any of that. And it is this very ordinariness of human love that may make this the mightiest blow for the gender-bender crowd yet. You read a review that tells you the two male lovers are gone a-courting on a planet ruled by women, and you might think Bear wrote this specifically in order to win the Tiptree. In fact, Carnival is a political thriller wrapped up in a space suit handed to the reader on a platter of machine intelligence with a side order of inscrutable alien. The whole bold, socially conscious literature thing is pretty much backstory.
As for the flaws: the resolution feels hasty and disconnected from all the misery the characters go through to get there. In a move as clumsy as dialing the virus into the modem bank on the alien mothership in Independence Day, Lesa's hacker-child covers a critical plot point in a very unconvincing display of genius. (There are very real limitations of available knowledge on computer hacker geniuses, no matter how brilliant they may be.)
Perhaps most disappointing of all, the collision course these characters are on never lives up to its potential. Bear offers up some Hollywood caliber villains to save these star-crossing characters from what seems to be an inevitable tragedy of star-crossed cultures.
Bear brings an abundance of talent, imagination, and old-fashioned work to this engaging story. The result is good entertainment, good science fiction, and great potential. A measure of any author's accomplishment is first, whether the reader devours the book eagerly to the very end, and then, whether the reader wants to go find some more. Despite a few surly frowns along the way, that was exactly this reader's experience.