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Ventus, Karl Schroeder, Tor, 2000, 477 pp.
Ventus is Karl Schroeder's first solo novel, and seldom have I read such a self-assured, polished, and visionary debut. Schroeder's work evokes comparisons to Joan Slonczewski and Vernor Vinge at their best, astonishing considering that both of those writers evolved to their current status over the course of several books. Ventus is that rarity, a science fiction book that pleases the specialized tastes of almost everyone in the genre, and so we have lots for fans of hard science fiction, but also some glossy prose, action but also ideas. The book explores two ideas in depth, embodiedness in the context of technological progress and the anthropocentrism of science, but Schroeder lavishes other details on the audience, like nanotechnology, terraforming, machine intelligence, and a whole host more. The book is also very carefully structured, starting from a simple ground level for both number of characters and amount of technological speculation, and steadily building from there, never losing the audience amidst the increasing complexity. Ventus is a treat of the highest order; in fact, it's become an instant favourite of mine, and a book that I recommend without reservation.
The book begins with a focus on one character, a young man named Jordan Mason, a stoneworker just come of age, and on one simple setting, the medieval-like village in which Jordan lives. On Jordan's first day in charge of the team of masons at the Manor House of Salt Inspector Castor, a stone mother, a mechal lifeform, leaps out of a crack in the manor wall and attacks his men. Through quick thinking, Jordan gets rid of the beast, and this is our first hint that Jordan's planet, the planet of the title, is not quite like ours. For one, Ventus has three main forms of life, flora, fauna, and mecha; also, the Winds rule the planet, although we have no idea at first as to the nature of these vast, impersonal forces. Through a series of unfortunate family circumstances, Jordan gets lost in the woods that night, only to meet up with mysterious woman named Calandria May, who seems to have been looking for him for her own reasons. Once we get a viewpoint chapter from Calandria, we start to understand what is going on with the planet of Ventus. Calandria is a galactic citizen, of the Archipelago as it is known, and she is on a mission to stop a man named Armiger, who was once the powerful minion of an evil, godlike machine intelligence known as 3340. In the wake of 3340's defeat, Armiger has been sent to Ventus to try and take control of the Winds, which are the colossal terraforming apparatus that keeps Ventus such a pleasant place to live. Unfortunately, the Winds do not recognize the humans or human technology as anything other than parasites, appearing to capriciously halt progress when in fact they are only responding to pollution and other irritants. I won't say more about the plot, except to note that it's wonderfully complex and sustains attention right until the end.
Jordan is the type of naive wonder child, on an arc from hapless adolescent to world-powerful individual, so common in science fiction. Like the similar story in Dune, things are not quite what they seem, however. Herbert spent much narrative energy in Dune setting Paul Atreides up to be deconstructed in later books, while Schroeder takes a somewhat different angle on the same problem. Jordan is the viewpoint character who brings us into an increasingly complex story, his ignorance essentially allows Schroeder to address the audience, and his increasing power keeps us cheering for him. All standard tactics. Schroeder goes on to diminish Jordan's role, simply by adding so many characters. For example, the transformation of Armiger (which I will discuss in a minute) over the course of the book changes our view of Jordan. Similarly, a character known as the Desert Voice plays an equal role with Jordan and Armiger in the ending and happens to be introduced two-thirds of the way through the book.
I mentioned that Ventus explores the idea of embodiedness. This happens most notably in the changes in Armiger's character. At the beginning of the book, he's careless with human life as the leader of an army, despite being in a human body himself. His nanotechnological augmentations allow him to survive being murdered and entombed, but he is left weak and frail. He falls into the care of a widow, dependent on kindness for the first time in his life, and the experience progressively removes his earlier motivations, decontextualizing his earlier life as a sentient thought inside the mentalscape of 3340. His body is his salvation, as he turns from his former, and now incomprehensible, evil. Interestingly, Schroeder provides an exact parallel role on the side of the protagonists. The Desert Voice is a newly embodied machine intelligence who has modelled herself after Calandria May (more detail would be spoilers), and it is she who breaks the self-righteousness on the side of Jordan, Calandria, and the others, in order to provide the solution that closes the book. What is that solution? Without ruining any surprises I can only say that the Desert Voice understands the struggle that underlies the nature of the Winds on Ventus. In the opposition between the status quo, wherein humans are treated like so much detritus, and the other end of the spectrum, in which either Calandria or Jordan or Armiger would like to gain absolute control over the entire process, the Desert Voice provides a third way, with her background as an independent artificial entity now in the context of the physical world. Thus, the nature of humanity's relationship with science becomes the crux of the book, and it's quite a beautiful resolution, as Schroeder gradually brings the dilemma to our awareness and then gracefully solves it.
Tor usually outdoes itself with the cover art of the books it publishes. Everything from books by Graham Joyce and Jonathon Carroll to the reissues of books by Charles de Lint and Kim Stanley Robinson, the editions are lovely and well worth purchasing. The only instance I can think of TOR getting it wrong is Rainbow Mars, in which case a gloriously trashy book was given a dignified cover. Ventus is an odd cover too, as it's exactly half-wrong. It's a front and centre portrait of the Desert Voice, who is absolutely crucial to the book, but the mood of the portrait is too lowbrow. The hardcover edition makes this more obvious, whereas the paperback uses the wraparound art as the bottom portion of the front cover, making it about a tenth the size. Feels very different!
Ventus is a remarkable book, and much complimented. Of all the praise on the dust jacket, most apt is the comparison to Vernor Vinge, as mentioned, but I would venture that Schroeder comes close to improving on Vinge's formula. Ventus is simply that good.
Last modified: February 17, 2002
Copyright © 2002 by James Schellenberg (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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