Monday, March 19, 2007

Guns, ships and AIs - the Jenny Casey trilogy

While browsing the SF&F section of a bookstore a few months ago, I decided to stop judging the store on how many books it carried by my favourite authors and to look for an author that I had never read before. I soon found the Jenny Casey series by Elizabeth Bear (Hammered, Scardown, and Worldwired) and was quickly hooked by its fast-moving and exciting plot. Set about 50 years in the future, this is a world struggling to cope with global warming – New York is protected by a sea wall, a collapse of the gulf stream is freezing the British Islands, and the US is in political and economic decline. After decades of war, Canada and China are wrestling for supremacy in an uneasy truce. Hammered, finds Jenny Casey, a middle-aged veteran of the Canadian Army, hiding from her past in Hartford, Connecticut. Her time in the army has left her with a prosthetic hand and joints that are breaking down and increasingly frequent flashbacks to combat. Now the Canadian army wants her back. This sets up the central mysteries of this book: what are the army’s plans for Jenny and is there a connection with a recent series of drug-related deaths in Hartford? Along the way, we are introduced to a fascinating set of characters, including upper members of the military-industrial complex, a Hartford gangster, and an AI modeled after Richard Feynman. Bear skillfully alternates between political intrigue and the individual quests of particular characters. It’s difficult to describe Scardown and Worldwired without giving away significant plot points from the earlier books. I can say, though, that as the series progresses, the scale increases to include space flight, the fate of humankind and devastating climactic changes.

Some aspects of the series are quite interesting from a feminist point of view. Women hold many of the positions of authority in Canadian society. This is briefly explained as a consequence of the heavy toll that decades of war took upon two generations of men. The question of whether women can hold authority and how men will react to it seems to be in the media a lot these days; it was quite satisfying to move beyond this and just watch women do it. Bear creates a satisfying variety of characters – no one is relegated to be the “generic woman” or “token man”. Jenny herself is far from the stereotypical “gun-toting babe” that is found in too much SF. She is nearing fifty and in chronic pain from her injuries and has struggled with substance abuse. Her relationships with her godchildren and with her lover are important, but are not set to be in conflict with her public role. The sprinkling of Canadian names and culture was enjoyable. I was surprised to find that Bear is American (it’s rare for American pop culture to notice Canada, or, I suppose, many other countries). The series does have some flaws – there is a noticeable shift in tone between the first book and the later two and a few strands of the plot don’t quite line up between the books. However, these problems are relatively minor. I recommend this series enthusiastically, and I’m eager to read some of Bear’s more recent novels.


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