Tuesday, April 7, 2009

David J. Williams - The Mirrored Heavens

David J. Williams, The Mirrored Heavens, Bantam Spectra, 2008.

Spoiler warning!

I bought this book, the author's first novel, when I heard it recommended on a podcast, and later heard an interview with the author on another podcast. It sounded interesting, and I was also challenged by hearing it described as a "masculine" story... I don't usually like such descriptions, and much of what I read is written by men, possibly largely aimed at male readers, and contains the sort of subject matter often considered "masculine" - warfare and technology. I didn't want to be excluded from reading anything by gender prejudice...

This is a 22nd century political action thriller, told from the point of view of four main characters, with each section starting with a graphic icon indicating the view point character. I liked this device, which felt somehow more organic than having a text header with the character's name (and sometimes the place, date and time) as other novels sometimes have. It felt more like recognizing the character's face in a film.

The main characters are agents of the various political powers and groups. Some are Razors, capable of interaction within the zone (the future equivalent of the Internet with a VR interface, a typical cyberpunk theme). Others are Mechs, enhanced fighters. They usually work in pairs. The first such pair is Razor Claire Haskell and Mech Jason Marlowe, who meet in the wreckage after a major terrorist attack destroys the space elevator built by the superpowers. This event creates political chaos and distrust, and they are sent to investigate. They discover that their memories are being controlled by their masters. Another character is Mech Strom Carson, more often referred to, even in his own mind, as The Operator (which annoyed me), who sees the attack on the space elevator on his way to the moon to work with his Razor. The third plot line involves Razor Lyle Spencer, who agrees to get Mech Seb Lineham across the border, which turns out to be even more difficult than they first believed.

The story follows these three groups of characters in the short period from the destruction of the space elevator to the brink of a world war caused by the resulting distrust between the superpowers. They all do and witness great violence, either for self-preservation or under orders from their handlers. People change affiliations and double-cross each other, and questions of identity arise. Specifically, Haskell and Marlowe have to live with the knowledge that their memories of being lovers while in training may be fictitious, since their missions are given to them in dreams and they can never be sure what else is done to their brains. The story works up to surprising revelations about their identities.

One aspect of the story that bothered me was the way the characters were able to communicate with each other mentally, by a sort of technological "telepathy", while being fully engaged in a spoken conversation, so their mental communication can pass unnoticed by witnesses. This sort of division of attention seems virtually impossible without significant enhancements to human consciousness. Yes, people can multi-task, but nobody can give full attention to two simultaneous conversations. I can accept many technological advances, but this seems to go further than what other writers envisage. All other stories I have read where people can communicate mentally seem to assume that they have to concentrate while doing this, and are therefore silent and physically still while communicating mentally.

I discovered quite early on that the story is "masculine" in a quite different sense of the term, not related to the violence and warfare. It was so focused on the action and the politics that the characters were insufficiently drawn and so did not engage the reader's emotions. It's hard enough to care for characters who are extremely violent, but when they are so superficially described, it becomes almost impossible to feel any sympathy for their ordeal.

The writing was less polished than I would have wanted. There was more dialogue than description or internal monologue. In some places, there was an attempt to link the end of one section to the beginning of the next section (the story of a different group of characters), which seemed forced and artificial, and actually detracted from the sense of knowing which story each section is about by creating a false continuity resulting only from the omniscient author's view point. For example, on page 71, one section ends and then the next one begins:

"You get used to it," says the Operative.

[Marlowe's icon] But what you don't get used to is what these third-world cities are like in their rafters.

These flaws may be attributable to the author's inexperience in writing, and I hope the sequel will be better written and contain more depth to the characters. It would also be interesting to learn about the world, with all its political intricacies, from characters not directly involved in the struggle. I expect I will overcome my disappointment with certain aspects of this book and read the forthcoming sequel, The Burning Skies, but it's not high on my list.

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