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WORLDWIRED
2005

Book cover art by Paul Youll.
Review © 2007 by Thomas M. Wagner.
AUTHOR'S SITE

From post-cyberpunk political action-thriller to apocalyptic epic to family drama to first-contact suspenser, Elizabeth Bear's Jenny Casey trilogy has made good use of the everything-and-the-kitchen-sink storytelling ethos. And as it's evolved, or, I should say, as Bear has evolved, her writing has displayed more freshness and energy. She seems more invigorated with each book, and has relinquished the reluctance evident in Hammered to let go of the skirts of her influences. Worldwired ends the trilogy with a satisfying sense of closure and a real feeling that Eilzabeth Bear has grown into a storyteller of impressive range.

As Scardown ended, Toronto had been obliterated by a meteor dropped onto it by a vessel of the PanChinese Alliance. Global climatic damage was minimized only by the sacrifice of Leah Castaign, whose deliberate crashing of her ship into the ocean caused the alien Benefactor nanotech to spread throughout the ecosystem. This nanotech, in turn, is under the control of the Feynman AI, and its spread creates the worldwire, a network into which anyone whose minds and bodies are already infested with the nanotech is "plugged in," as it were. Meanwhile, the Benefactor vessels themselves, silent and ineffable, are parked in orbit, while Jenny Casey and a team of scientists attempt to fathom these beings who appear to exist in a kind of quantum state and do not communicate in any fashion we can recognize.

Retribution for the attack on Canada doesn't come as simply as one might think. Warring factions within the PanChinese government, as well as some sneaky opposition in Canada to embattled prime minister Constance Riel, cloud the whole process of accountability and reparations. The Chinese are even claiming that the spreading of the Benefactor nanotech constitutes an attack itself. Hearings at the Untied Nations promise to be tense. Meanwhile, in orbit, there's tension of another kind, when an EVA visit to one of the mysterious Benefactor ships results in two scientists' being abducted. But is this a malign act, or the first step in communication with lifeforms no one has yet to understand?

I liked how the theme of communication threaded itself throughout Worldwired with a palpable sense of irony. Here's the human race, doing all it can to come up with ways to talk to aliens whose perception of the universe is different than anything we've yet conceived, and yet we still can't even get along with one another. The same political ambitions, greed, and ideological blinders hold us back as they've always done. Meanwhile, the worldwire itself opens up staggering new possibilities for human communication — essentially, if you're hooked in, it's as good as telepathy — while at the same time raising disturbing implications for such treasured notions as privacy and security.

While this trilogy is still Jenny Casey's story, Worldwired treats its characters as an ensemble cast even more confidently than Scardown. Bear has the capacity to explore family dynamics and interpersonal relationships with a sensitivity that reveals emotional truths without resorting to melodrama or bathos. Worldwired doesn't have quite the number of strong character scenes as Scardown, but what's here still plays well, helped immeasurably by our familiarity with and fondness for the protagonists after three books. For instance, the inadequacy that Leah's surviving little sister Genie feels, living in her heroic sibling's shadow, seems genuine. Genie comes across as convincingly conflicted, not simply some shallow and petulant teen. Just as appealing is the Feynman AI. On the one hand, he may be another of SF's near-godlike all-powerful computer intelligences, there to help the human characters get out of scrapes they couldn't possibly fix on their own. But Bear has shown a lot of wit in incorporating the real-life Feynman's own famous charm and sense of humor into her fictional tribute to him. It goes a long way toward helping the Feynman AI avoid becoming too clichéd a concept, just another wisecracking skiffy "computer".

Less successful is the political thread of the story. While the extra dimension that all this Machiavellian scheming and counter-scheming gives the story is all well and good, Bear still has an unfortunate tendency to make this stuff just way too complicated. Perhaps a flow chart to help us keep track of everyone and all of their secret alliances and under-the-table dealings would help matters — though not so much as simply not twisting the whole affair up so outrageously in the first place.

If the big-shootout climax seems too conventional a way to wrap everything up, that isn't to say it's not exciting, either. Nor is the familiarity of one of the series' themes — that we all gotta come together if we're gonna make it, people — a liability when it's delivered in the context of taut and entertaining storytelling such as this. With this trilogy, not only has Elizabeth Bear undergone remarkable maturation in developing her own voice and broadening the scope of her ideas and creativity, but she's reminded us that the best kind of escapism is that which brings you down to earth in the end.