Monday, July 20, 2009

Review: Metaplanetary

Okay, I'm going to try to review the science fiction book Metaplanetary, by Tony Daniel. I say try because, to be honest, I didn't feel the need or enthusiasm to finish it. I got halfway through, decided to check out some of the reviews of the book on Amazon, was a bit startled to see how uniformly positive they were, then discovered that not only does this book apparently not have an ending that wraps things up, it's part of a trilogy that has not been completed in spite of the fact that this book was published in 2001. And the second book has a much more mixed bag of reviews.

So I felt no compelling reason to keep going.

What did I glean from the couple hundred pages of Metaplanetary that I did read? Well, Tony Daniel apparently spent a fair amount of effort figuring out the science that would allow intelligent nanotech with instantaneous communications ability and a giant set of tubes physically connecting the inner planets to exist. He goes to a lot of work to explain this to the reader, inserting a bunch of short, two-three page faux historical essays and commentaries into the novel, inevitably interrupting the flow of the narrative to do so, all with the apparent goal of explaining to us how all this weird shit came about.

Unfortunately for me, this effort was largely wasted. I didn't much care for the uber-scientist characters he created whose brilliant insights upset all we knew about physics, but that's largely moot as they are only really seen in the flashbacks. Mostly, my problem was twofold:
  1. All the scientific trappings failed to convince me that the Met, as the huge collection of tubes physically connecting the inner planets is called, made any sense whatsoever from either a physical or a social perspective. How can you connect objects moving in elliptical orbits at different speeds with giant tubes without them getting tangled? Hell, I can't keep my garden hoses from kinking and tangling and they are maybe 100 feet long at the most. Just as significantly, even if you could somehow build something as crazy as this, why the hell would you bother? What possible benefits does it offer compared to just creating a space based civilization using beanstalks and orbital platforms and asteroids bumped into closer orbits to get more energy and supply resources? It doesn't. It requires engineering on the level of a Dyson sphere or a Ringworld with none of practical benefits. The Met exists solely because Daniel thought, "This would be a cool idea and nobody has thought of it before." And I just didn't find it that cool. Might as well write a fantasy and put it in there so I don't have to constantly wonder how it actually works and how incongruous it is sitting in the middle of an setting that otherwise tries to be fairly hard science fiction. Except for:
  2. The grist was also frustrating because, unlike a high-nanotech future such as that described in Wil McCarthy's Bloom or even Neal Stephenson's Diamond Age, it didn't feel like the world inundated with grist was all that coherent. I like the name grist, but I did not see the need for adding all the extra instant communication weirdness to free-floating nanotech, which is already weird enough. Frankly, the society Daniel was describing just seemed too normal to me to have this kind of magical technology floating around. And there's this very poorly explained breakdown of human minds into a tripartite aspect: pellicle, aspect, and convert. I did not like the names or the descriptions of these elements. Aspect tells me nothing, convert made sense only after reading a review (it's some sort of algorthymic conversion of a person's mental state apparently), and pellicle was just weird. And frankly, I still have no clear idea WHY people separate into these different parts and why they are always on and interacting.
Golden Age by John C. Wright is a much more coherent and just as wild and crazy depiction of a future solar system.

So, with the setting not grabbing, me, I had to look to the characters. Eh. They were decent and the half-ferret, half-nanotechnological homunculus, half-stored mind program of a deceased human (yeah, that's too many halves, but that's about as clear as the novel gets) character was cool. But it just wasn't enough to keep me suspending my disbelief and wading through the other bits of the setting.

Addendum: Looking at the reviews of Daniel's first two novels, Warpath and Earthling, suggests that my concerns about poorly explained science and politics and a somewhat meandering plot have come up in the past. So while Metaplanetary is probably an improvement on these, showing that Daniel is progressing as a writer, there still seems to be a challenge with combining the imagination and stylistic prose with a bit more structure.

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