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Primary Inversion, Catherine Asaro, TOR, 1995, 369 pp.

Primary Inversion, the debut novel by Catherine Asaro, was the starting point for a very successful career in science fiction. Combining a prolific output with critical regard is rare; Asaro was rewarded with a Nebula Award for Best Novel in 2001 for The Quantum Rose. I picked up Primary Inversion on a whim a year or two after its release, a serendipitous find. A book with its heart so obviously in the right place is always a happy surprise.

Catherine Asaro earned her doctorate from Harvard, was a physics professor until 1990, ran her own company, Molecudyne Research, and was involved in the NASA Breakthrough Propulsion Physics Program (which does the good work of examining strange new theories). She is also a professionally trained ballet dancer, and in her spare time (!), she has been writing science fiction. This is her debut novel, and by the time I first read it, she had already followed it up with two more books with another on the way. Generally speaking, her prolific output has been enjoyable, if not always a match for the strengths of Primary Inversion; her fiction career was definitely off to a solid beginning with this book.

Primary Inversion opens with a clever mix of exposition and action. Asaro has the uncommon ability to keep us intrigued while giving background material; she grabs us immediately, and sprinkles details about people, politics, and science as the strong narrative marches along. The opening two paragraphs are a good example of the skill. The book's opening line -- "Although I had known about Delos since I was a young woman, this was my first visit to the planet" (3) -- instantly grounds us in the perspective of the main character, Sauscony Valdoria, who goes on to say a few words about Delos, setting out the main political divisions of the novel, broad strokes which will delineated carefully later. The first paragraph ends by explaining Earth's intentions at making Delos a place of harmony.

The second paragraph clues us in as to the basic conflict in this universe: "Harmony was their word, not ours. You'd never have caught one of us walking with a Trader soldier, in harmony or otherwise" (3). Putting this type of exposition in the first person is Asaro's wisest choice: the cardinal rule for reading first-person novels is to never trust first-person narrators. However, Asaro plays with the basic untrustworthiness of first-person narrators by taking us along on the journey as this particular character learns more, and comprehends more. So, while Sauscony is someone that we like right off, and tend to trust (and the more technical speculation is probably given to us straight), Asaro uses her to lure us into this fictional universe, as Sauscony herself is voyaging closer to its truth, and to her own soul.

Sauscony is a member of the Skolian Imperialate family, the Skolians being one of the three factions in the galaxy. The Allied Worlds of Earth have come late into contact with other people, and have tried to stay neutral. The Skolians and the Traders have been locked in deadly wars, hot or cold, for many years; Skolians rely on the amazing mental capabilities of their leaders for their edge, while the Traders have greater numbers and a ruthlessness that comes from the nature of the Aristo leaders. Sauscony's family are Rhon empaths, the highest level of psychic power imaginable, while Aristos use empaths as "providers" for their own hard-wired sadomasochistic pleasure. Sauscony is also a Jagernaut, one of the most advanced types of fighter pilots in the galaxy; Jagernauts can communicate telepathically during FTL flight, but that also means that they are open to the hatred and death agonies of opposing pilots.

It's no wonder, then, that Sauscony has a fair share of personal problems (more on that in a minute). She's the main character, and crucial to the mechanics of the novel's exposition. She is also the novel's most gripping aspect, simply by force of personality. Asaro clearly spent a good deal of time creating a strong, dynamic character, one that people of either gender can easily identify with. However, Sauscony is not a one-note monolith of fortitude and brawn -- she is articulate, funny, and empathic to boot. But most of all, Sauscony is a character with a past, a past filled with needs, betrayals, tragedies, friends, and triumphs. We learn by page 11 of one of her most searing experiences, in another of Asaro's shrewd fusions of disclosure and suppression:

Taas stared at me. "You've been a Trader servant?"

"No." I spoke with a calmness I did not feel. "A provider."

Taas blanched, and Helda's muscles bunched up along her shoulders, making her jacket shift position. "Provider" was one of the Aristos' euphemisms, one I never wanted to think about again. (11)

It is a credit to Asaro that she takes us along into Sauscony's pain later without making the book itself feel unpleasant or distasteful. Asaro clearly understands one of Roger Ebert's dictums about what makes for interesting drama, namely that it's not what we do, but how we feel when we're doing it. In fact, one of Sauscony's driving motivations throughout the story is to maintain her own ability to feel. To my mind, the most important single line in the book -- "The capacity of the human soul to harden was boundless" (102) -- is Sauscony's biggest realization. When she makes some decisions later in the book that run directly contrary to the needs of the Skolian security apparatus, they can only be explained by this internal epiphany. The conclusion of the book clearly sets up an ongoing story, but it feels complete and satisfactory because of the way that Sauscony has developed as a person. It's not often that a main character fights through emotional and internal conflicts that keep us as involved as anything that happens on the galactic scale.

And there are indeed grand things happening in Asaro's galaxy. The first third of the book contains a raid on a heavily guarded mansion, a clandestine meeting between two Rhons (the highest scoring empaths in the galaxy), and the one of the most exciting space battles I've ever read. This space battle certainly beats out anything in sf movies in terms of excitement, but I'm not sure how well it would itself translate to film. One of the points the book makes explicitly is that consciousness unaided by EIs (Evolved Intelligences) cannot grasp the high pace of warfare of the future, a more likely outcome than the typical WWI-type dogfights-in-space of such narratives. The middle third focuses on Sauscony's personal life, and by now we are hooked on the plot, and genuinely care about her well being. For the last third, Asaro includes some scenes of hacking into the most heavily secured computer networks in the galaxy, high-level negotiations with the Allieds, and a hair-raising escape.

One final note. Primary Inversion laid the groundwork for an extensive and ongoing future history; I came back to re-read this book after having read eight other Skolian novels and I was curious to see how the original work would stand up in light of the sequels. Not surprisingly, Primary Inversion has much more exposition about the Skolian universe than the subsequent books; I was surprised to find, however, that Asaro included far more hardcore speculation about scientific matters in this book than any of the others. The Skolian Saga has gradually drifted away from hard science fiction and more towards the family melodrama writ large of the intricately related narratives to come. Not to say that Primary Inversion is pure hard sf in the first place; the book is entirely structured around Sauscony and her personal epiphanies. Both strategies display Asaro's strengths, but my personal preference would be for more of the mix shown in this book.

First posted: October 29, 1997; Last modified: January 26, 2004

Copyright © 1997-2004 by James Schellenberg (

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