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Permanence, Karl Schroeder, TOR, 2002, 447 pp.
Permanence is Karl Schroeder’s second solo novel, after the memorable debut of Ventus. Ventus raised my expectations for any follow-up to possibly unattainable heights, but Schroeder has neatly avoided any type of sophomore jinx. He does this by means of a different approach to material that is at times similar, always using the same clarity of speculation and strength of writing to create varying effects, a point that I will be reiterating in this review. For example, in my time of slogging through the lazy nanotechnology novels that plague the science fiction genre, I have seldom encountered the original ideas on the topic represented by either Ventus or Permanence. Even though Permanence has its own share of flaws, and both books have some amount of pseudo-explanatory hand waving, for both books to come from one author is remarkable. The two novels resemble one another in their basic attributes, such as realistic characters, plentiful ideas, a fast-moving story, and a satisfying conclusion. And while Permanence doesn’t shout out its arrival in the same, at times brash, manner as Ventus, it’s paradoxically a less mature novel in story structure. More on this difference in a minute.
Permanence is mainly the story of two characters, Rue Cassels and Michael Bequith. The book begins with Rue, making a move that defines her first adult action: to escape from the station where she was born and the ruthlessness of her brother Jentry. Allemagne, Rue’s station, is part of the cycler compact, an interstellar civilization of stations and planets orbiting brown dwarf stars. The brown dwarfs are linked by cyclers, slow starships bringing trade and information. Faster ships are the new innovation among the lit worlds; unfortunately, these new ships don’t reach the dark dwarfs, and the cycler compact is dying a slow death. Rue is desperate to get to the nearest planet around her dwarf star (planets generally having better luck in the absence of trade than the space stations), and on her way, she spots what she thinks is an asteroid but what turns out to be a non-scheduled and incommunicado cycler. She has already made a salvage claim and, after a few reversals, becomes a member of the group of most powerful individuals in the compact, a sole owner of a starship. Now she faces the daunting task of putting together a crew and claiming her salvage rights. What she discovers on the newly christened Jentry’s Envy becomes the focus of the plot. Why does no one know about this ship? Why was it abandoned? And what are the strange markings on it?
All this happens in the first section of the book, after which Michael Bequith is introduced. He is an expert in understanding alien cultures, a xenopsychologist of sorts, and he and his mentor, Laurent Herat, are working on Kadesh, a planet with many floods. The two scientists are gradually becoming discouraged by the fact that every alien civilization they have studied has no interest in communicating with humans. Michael has a hidden history of resistance to the Rights Economy, the political movement that has control of the lit worlds, but it is this resistance that gives him an edge in understanding alien cultures. Michael and Laurent are co-opted by the Rights Economy into a mission to investigate Jentry’s Envy. From what we already know of Rue, we can see the conflict to come when her and her cycler friends field interference from the Rights Economy (RE) who have so callously abandoned their role in the compact. The bulk of Permanence concerns events aboard Jentry’s Envy, Rue’s determination to keep control of her discovery, and Michael’s past and its effect on the unfolding events.
Characterization has a nice touch in a sequence early in the book. Rue’s crew is close to their quarry, but they have the wrong type of telescope to spot it against the starfield. Rue figures out the problem herself and her solution means that they must all suit up and go outside the ship, in a moving passage where the spacer mentality comes through. Rue, anxious about her role as a leader, easily regains her equilibrium as soon as they go out into space, and notes about one of the other characters: “His breathing was shallow, but he seemed to have gotten control of himself. These guys were from planets, she reminded herself. They weren’t used to being out in the real world” (89). Rue might be young to be a leader, but her development is always believable and grounded in concrete details such as in this quotation. Michael has his own maturing process as a character, but in a sense his personal journey is only a rediscovery of his potential after a trauma in his past.
There’s a fairly long sequence near the middle of the book in which Laurent Herat expounds background information ad infinitum. We get crucial details about the philosophical underpinnings of the novel, specifically in regard to previous alien civilizations, but it felt too much like an indigestible chunk. It actually reminded me of the character of the librarian in Snow Crash, who could be relied upon to slow the narrative to a snail’s pace while telling us all the things Stephenson thought important for us to understand his book. Schroeder is not quite as guilty an offender here, but I was a little disappointed here after the smooth as silk exposition in Ventus. Oddly, some of the arguments here feel less like ideas presented for their own sake and more like answers to ongoing debates in science fiction. This reminded me of some of the stories in Peter Watts’ collection Ten Monkeys, Ten Minutes, in which Watts wanted to challenge received wisdom, arguing in one story that technology means belligerence, not intelligence. In the same way, Schroeder seems to be chastising the lack of vision in other takes on galactic history, here by revising the vision towards pessimism and the idea that technology means impermanence.
What are the ideas underpinning the book? The title sums it up neatly: permanence (and the lack of it) is likely the main issue at hand. Science fiction has always made vivid use of the contrast between our perspective, limited in scale, with the universe, virtually unlimited on every scale that impinges on our senses. How can we create a civilization that makes even the smallest bit of difference against the grinding awesomeness of infinity? The problem is like Shelley’s Ozymandias taken to the power of 10. “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair” indeed, especially when some of the aliens mentioned in Permanence were concerned that their civilization had only lasted for 80 million years.
I mentioned at the beginning of this review that Permanence has a unique take on nanotechnology, and also that Permanence is a less mature novel in structure than Ventus. Both are related. It’s the Rights Economy that uses nano in this book, and a brief description of this use will serve to differentiate it from nanotechnology in Ventus. On the planet Ventus, nano served the function of terraforming, and the breakdown in command was the basis of Schroeder’s story in that book. Here, whole planets are saturated with nanotechnology down to the smallest molecule just like in Ventus, the physical world reincarnated as information, but in this case, the context is completely different. The Rights Economy uses their control at this molecular level to enforce payment by anyone who uses any innovation to the company that created it. This could be the most repressive and finely-tuned system for wealth to the rich and poverty to the poor, as if a Microsoft of the future owned the rights to all software and had unlimited power to collect. Schroeder also demonstrates how the mindset of the RE in the context of complete instantiation of concepts like money leads to a dogmatic materialism, in this case of a type that outlaws religion, along with any other modes of thought that allow resistance. These are all interesting ideas, and reasonably well implemented by Schroeder. Unfortunately, because any sane reader concludes immediately that the RE is not a civilization of any permanence, the RE characters step into the role of the sneering villains, the bugbears of the piece. This is an enormous step back from the sophisticated structure of Ventus, in which villains and heroes alike had basic misunderstandings about the nature of humanity’s role to science and the world around them, and the story arc concluded with both sides of the fence coming to a realization about their relationship to the world. Permanence feels much more conventional, less like a subversion of space opera narrative drive and more like an example of what a talented author can do with an exciting story that nevertheless does not push the boundaries of the genre too far.
In my review of Ventus, I noted that the cover art didn’t entirely suit the book, a disconnect that doesn’t happen very often at TOR. Permanence sports a cover from the same artist, Alan Pollack, but Pollack does a much better job this time around. And the dustjacket design puts the main character Rue on the spine, which is a nice touch.
Last modified: October 30, 2002
Copyright © 2002 by James Schellenberg (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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