This novel, whose actual title is simply / (I can imagine the marketing crew at Tor wringing their hands over that), is one of Bear's most unusual, even by his own insanely ambitious standards. I also found it equal parts fascinating and frustrating.
/ Slant is a complex multicharacter drama set in the 2060's, a time when society has become so frantic and stress-inducing that a whole new class system has arisen based upon how much psychotherapy a person has undergone in life (a "natural" is a person who's never needed it); and yet it is also a time of great scientific wonders, where nanotechnology has been perfected to the point at which people can have themselves altered right down to the molecular level, and where truly self-aware AI computers called "thinkers" are a swiftly developing reality. On top of all this, traditional economy has been replaced by one based entirely on information exchange, or "dataflow."
Eschewing traditional approaches to plot development, Bear begins his story as a purely character-driven piece, as we meet a variety of high-lifes and low-lifes in the Pacific Northwest, particularly Seattle and the newly independent enclave of Green Idaho, an area of the former US that has rebelled against the government and the culture of nano-therapy it has created, though Green Idaho itself is ripping at the seams due to lack of sound leadership and the fact most of its younger generation are fleeing to what remains of the States. The trouble is that only some of these characters are interesting, a couple are downright boring, and even in the cases of the interesting ones, Bear seems to keep the reader at arm's length, rarely allowing you that all-important empathy, the need for a reader to relate to a character in order to become properly swept up in a story.
/ Slant, you see, is a book about distance and separation, the inability to connect. The symbol of the title is, in fact, used in text to denote separation, as Bear points out. There is an entire class of people called the disAffected (why the goofy spelling?), floating through their meaningless lives on a government dole, unwilling to undergo therapy and with no prospects for any sort of happiness at all. All through this book, we see a host of characters unable to find firm footing, to connect with anything or any other person in a meaningful way. (Not surprisingly, sex, and the way it is used as shallow substitution for real relationships, plays an enormous role in the story.) Occasionally the point is made poignantly; other times it is rendered in ghastly melodrama, such as when a young porn actress bursts into tears and literally wails, "I am so sick of myself, it scares me.... I'm just hanging on. All I can think about is how miserable I am." Gah. Well, whatever; the fact is that the point, I think, has been made before in tighter novels than this one.
Still, I do not discredit this book, as there is an intriguing plot that gradually unfolds throughout the course of the narrative. It seems that this supposedly perfect society isn't so perfect after all. (Another done-to-death theme, but that's okay for now.) More and more therapied citizens are experiencing out-and-out recidivism and mental collapse, and it's reaching epidemic proportions. There is the hint of a secret organization on the East coast that wants an all-natural, non-therapied society like in the good old days, and an alarmingly independent "thinker" AI that can seemingly break into the most well-guarded systems. And what's with this fellow in Green Idaho who's part of a rebel group who seeks to sabotage in some way an enormous cryogenic facility? There is the added mystery of the suicide of a prominent billionaire. Many of the book's individual scenes have a great deal of dramatic power, particularly in the action-packed third act. And Bear shows much ingenuity in the way he introduces myriad disparate story threads, and then skillfully, and slowly, begins to weave them together as the book progresses. But I think it's that "slowly" part that will frustrate readers; you are fully halfway through this 500-page tome before things begin to get going in earnest.
Bear also does a few other things I found grating. / Slant is written in present tense, which I absolutely hate. Though it's okay in nonfiction, I find that this minor deviation from conventional past-tense narrative always calls attention to itself in fiction, and the best prose style, like the best film editing, should be invisible. Another thing is that Bear isn't exactly subtle about the fact that this cautionary tale is meant as a metaphor for our present day society, and that this is where we could all be headed if we Don't Watch Out. (It is mentioned in the story that there is an '80's-'90's retro thing currently in vogue, which I don't quite see happening as late as the 2060's. Given current trends I figure the '90's nostalgia craze will hit in the late 2010's.)
On the whole, it's the general feeling of aloofness that keeps this novel from achieving its fullest potential. Clearly, / Slant is not a book to be dismissed. It is obviously a carefully thought-out and mature work produced by one of the finest talents writing today. But even fine talents do not always succeed at everything they try. Or, consider this: perhaps here, Bear succeeds too well. In / Slant, Bear tells the tale of a future that has gotten way ahead of itself, in which meaningful connections to other people and other lives are next to impossible to make; how fittingly ironic the novel itself shares that flaw. (For a novel that explores similar themes more successfully, check out John Brunner's The Jagged Orbit.)