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August 2007
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Musing on Books
by Michelle West

The New Moon's Arms, by Nalo Hopkinson, Warner Books, 2007, $23.99.

Divergence, by Tony Ballantyne, Bantam, 2007, $6.99.

The Society of S, by Susan Hubbard, Simon and Schuster, 2007, $25.

I'VE LONG been a fan of Nalo Hopkinson, partly because she never does the same thing twice, and partly because, even when the work is flawed, her ambitions—in something as mythically and historically dense as, say, The Salt Roads—make her books worth reading. True to form, she's gone from that textual density to something completely different in The New Moon's Arms, turning to the Caribbean Island of Dolorosse in the present, and focusing on the middle-aged-and-resenting-it-greatly Calamity Lambkins. Born Chastity Theresa, she changed her name to something she felt was more suitable. Calamity has a daughter, Ifeoma, born when Calamity herself was sixteen years old; she has no husband, and, as the book opens, is burying her father; her mother disappeared one long-ago night when she was young. She is a grandmother as well, a state that she would dislike intensely if she weren't fond of Stanley, although she still hates it when he calls her anything but Calamity; Grandma is for old women.

When Calamity was a girl, she was a Finder. She could find things that were lost, just by reaching out to touch them. When her mother disappeared, so did the gift, ebbing like the tides around her small island home. But now, late in life, accompanied by hot flashes and chills, that gift has come back with a vengeance. And with a difference: Almost all of the lost things Calamity finds are her own—old books that she loved in childhood, old foods, even the orchard in which she grew up. It's not a metaphor that Calamity thinks twice about—but it's particularly apt that she doesn't; she's never been one for questioning her own motives.

But the most important thing she finds is a half-drowned child on the beach—life coming out of the water in the lee of the burial of her father. The child she finds is a boy, age three at best guess; he speaks, but not in any language that she can understand. She suspects he's not entirely human, that he is, in fact, a sea-child, someone who lives, like seals, in the water. She ends up fostering the child—who adores her—and with the child, her own relationship with her daughter comes into focus, on both sides, and she has to take a good, hard look at herself.

Calamity is a brittle, fractious, judgmental, narrow-minded woman—someone who knows how to hold a grudge better than she knows how to breathe. But she is also conversely generous, impulsive, and helpful; when she understands her duty and her obligations, she does her best to live up to them. In short, she's bitingly real, and in spite of the obvious ways in which she's wrong, it's impossible not to like her, even when you're wincing at the latest thing that's fallen out of her mouth. This is one of Hopkinson's gifts—she never argues that Calamity is right, but clearly holds her in great affection regardless. You like her, and you want her to move on, to grow, and to let go of the things she holds on to too tightly.

Which makes the novel itself rewarding, because in many ways, it is a coming of age—and it doesn't matter that it's middle age; Calamity Lambkins, in spite of herself, has the opportunity to change, to look at her past as an adult, rather than clinging to the ferocious memories of a teenager forced to take on the trappings of adulthood before she'd grown into them. Letting go of pain is hard; understanding the pain you caused while you were in pain, possibly harder. She has to do a lot of both.

This is both moving and quiet; it has no end-of-the-world threat, no big pyrotechnics—but the wonder, if quiet, is strong. I highly recommend it.

*     *     *

Tony Ballantyne's second novel is in no way a quiet, small drama. A direct sequel to Capacity, it returns us to the world in which Judy lives. Judy, one of thirteen sisters, used to work for Social Care, utilizing the empathy drug MTPH to understand better the people she was sent to evaluate and help. That was before Kevin, Chris, and The Watcher, all AIs of incredible intelligence and cunning (although Kevin was in denial), destroyed her life and her simple understanding of the near-perfect world she helped support.

That world has changed markedly with the appearance of Dark Crystals—apparently natural phenomena that feed on, well, intelligence, but Judy's life had already slipped away; she's been in hiding for more than a decade. But hiding time is now over, even in free space, where The Watcher doesn't rule. What rules instead is the Fair Exchange software by which merchant ships of all sizes and categories are making their living.

The book starts out with a very chaotic and largely unhappy vessel, the Eva Rye, and its very conflicted crew. The captain of the ship, Michel, doesn't actually want to be captain, and in his attempt to please everyone, he succeeds—as is usually the case—in doing pretty much nothing. But the Eva Rye stumbles upon a derelict ship, a robot vessel whose AI is asking them for a tow to the nearest space dock because it doesn't want to drift into a floating field of Dark Crystals.

The shipmates argue about this, then vote to use the Fair Exchange Software to trade systems repair (theirs is in need of an overhaul) for the tow.

But the system that the Stranger sees as most in need of repair is actually the crew itself, and in fixing the physical difficulties the ship has, it activates the replication software, and a second Eva Rye is born—with less than half the crew. It's the second ship that will eventually accept Judy as cargo.

The crew of the second ship? A caustic, hyper-critical young woman named Saskia, a competent but doubtful young man named Maurice, a severe and somewhat unkind old woman named Miss Rose, and a very severely learning-disabled man named Edward. It's upon these people that Judy's life depends—because they've agreed to take her to Earth, which is heavily quarantined and almost impossible to reach, due to the density of Dark Crystal formations around the planet.

The Fair Exchange software is under some scrutiny; it is certainly not trusted by the crew, because as far as they can tell, they've gotten nothing useful for anything they've traded away. But…if you break a deal that the software has calculated is fair, you're out of the FE network for good—and their livelihood, such as it is, depends on that network. So, bitterly unhappy, they soldier on.

Judy herself has discovered that she's not exactly human, which, given everything else, is a blow. She's also discovered that whatever she is, DIAMA Corp believes her to be its property, and they've activated a meta-intelligence in her that takes the place of her brother's interior voice. And also takes the place of the empathic MTPH residue that she's grown to depend on to read the emotions of people around her.

She doesn't have to be a genius to figure out this crew—but she's tired, and she knows that no matter what happens, she's headed back to Earth. Everything has transpired to send her back to The Watcher, and Judy is tired of running.

But the Fair Exchange software adds a few twists to the journey itself. And to the book as a whole.

Divergence is an interesting novel; it can be read as an all out space-opera with current technical trends (the proliferation of Von Neumann Machines among them); it can be read as a social commentary on any utopia, and also as a commentary on free will and consequences. Ballantyne never slows down—the book moves, and moves with verve and style. I'm not entirely certain I agree with his take on what is, in the end, God—but the book's audacious, unique, and highly readable.

*     *     *

I would like to remind people up front that I don't really go in for Vampire novels. They're just not my sub-genre. (Although I did read all the Marv Wolfman Dracula comics that Marvel put out in my childhood and early youth.) But I have always had luck with those novels that skirt the borders of the genre—that are not, in the end, Vampire novels so much as they are novels in which the symbolism of the Vampiric blends with the author's specific voice.

So, with this firmly in mind, I picked up The Society of S, by Susan Hubbard. What made me curious was the following, excerpted from the back blurb of the advance reading copy: "a taut, character-driven literary mystery, The Society of S is the future of vampirism, told in a voice that will haunt you—and make you think."

I'm all for thinking.

But one of the things that I should also have remembered is never to read the PR copy of any book I want to enjoy; I should, by now, know better than to judge a book by any part of its cover, and I cannot now divorce the book and my reading of it from my expectations going into the reading itself.

Perhaps because I was expecting more, I found the book curiously flat. The protagonist-cum-author (the book is, in theory, a diary), one Ariella Montero, was abandoned by her mother at birth; she's been raised entirely by her father, his best friend, his ugly, irritable lab assistant and Mrs. McGarritt, a woman with many children of her own, who comes during the day while her own children are at school to prepare meals for Ariella.

Ariella is, of course, home-schooled by her father, and when the book opens she is thirteen years old, on the brink of adolescence. She has a thousand questions about her mother, which her father has always avoided answering, and is slowly coming up with a thousand questions about her father—and herself. Because Ariella is not, she is coming to realize, normal. And not all of the strangeness can be attributed to her very isolated upbringing.

Mrs. McGarritt does care about her, and is worried about her, and sets in motion a series of events that will change Ari's life pretty much forever: she invites Ari to her home, and introduces Ari to her children. The oldest two, Kathleen and Michael, will become the first real friends Ari has ever had. But Kathleen figures out what Ari is so slow to come to terms with herself.

Possibly my favorite parts of the novel—the ones that feel truest to me, as a reader—are those that involve the growing friendship between Kathleen and Ari, and the growing attraction between Michael and Ari; there's a real weight to it, and a sense of hope and wonder on the part of the narrator that makes her earlier isolation stand out. True as well is the portrayal of the family when tragedy strikes, and it's haunting—but it's not what the book is actually about, and given the difference in weight between these scenes and the scenes that involve the mystery of Vampirism, the Vampirism is pale and faded.

Ari's response to the tragedy is to run as far away as she can in search of the mother who abandoned her at birth. She finds her mother, and finds her own kind—but again, given the understated complexity of her interactions with the McGarritt children, their reunion is all too easy.

Having said all this? I finished the book, and I enjoyed much of it while reading; much of it was very, very strong, as noted above. But it doesn't quite stand alone for me; as a single novel, it doesn't quite gel at the end.

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