Steampunk is currently all the rage, but this book was published before steam engines and airships and whatnot became recently fashionable. And besides, Crystal Rain (Tor, 2007) is not your ordinary steampunk. It has a healthy dose of post-apocalyptic science fiction as well, but here too Crystal Rain breaks the mold. On the one hand, the setting includes sailboats and airships, gaslights, firearms, and, mostly in Capitol City, steam-powered trains, cars, and even a ship, and trolly-like electric cars. I don't recall any conspicuous leather, aviation goggles, brass, or clockwork though. On the other hand, we quickly find out that this story takes place centuries after some cataclysmic disaster. There are near-mythical stories of the "old fathers," and Preservationists seek to restore lost technologies. A barren area inland called Hope's Loss causes people who travel through it to sicken and die. To add another twist, we quickly discover the story takes place not on Earth, but some distant planet, by the casual description of two moons in the sky and tales of the old fathers traveling to the land of Nanagada via "worm's holes" and warming the planet with mirrors in the sky that have since crashed and burned. Turns out Nanagada is a lost colony planet. Caribbean-born author Tobias Buckell adds spice to the mix by populating the setting of his debut novel with a collection of mostly non-white races, dominated by Caribbean culture and dialect.
Actually, the first hints that you're not reading the typical steampunk or post-apocalyptic novel come in the prologue when a mysterious black man with dreadlocks, dressed in top hat and trenchcoat, falls out of the sky in a "steaming metal boulder," speaks gibberish to the natives for a minute, then after manipulating his throat suddenly speaks their language. He appears tired and thin, weak, so the natives take him back to their village -- though he has strength left in him to kill a jaguar effortlessly with his bare hands on the way. After a week of pigging out, he's all buffed out. All he tells them is that he's looking for an old friend. This mysterious, superhuman figure we later find out to be Pepper, who features in several subsequent novels and short stories by Buckell. The author handles him well. Pepper has his limits, which are tested in the novel, and while he often appears to be a "looking out for #1," cold-blooded mercenary-type, Buckell manages to give him a depth that defies expectations.
But the main protagonist of Crystal Rain is the man Pepper is looking for: John deBrun. John is a sailor, fisherman, and painter, with a hook in place of the left hand that he lost to frostbite on an ill-fated excursion to the icy north. He remembers nothing of his past from before he washed ashore 27 years prior in the town of Brungstun near the Wicked High Mountains that separate the Nanagadan Peninsula from the rest of the continent. But he has an uncanny ability to navigate, as if he has a GPS in his head. He has settled down there, married, and has a 13-year old son. Oh, and he doesn't seem to have aged much in those 27 years.
Little do most know at the start, but the Azteca, who live on the other side of the Wicked Highs, are being driven by their bloodthirsty gods, the Teotl, to cross the mountains and invade Nanagada. Another main viewpoint character, Oaxyctl (O-ash-k-tul), who is actually an Aztecan double agent spying for the Nanagadans, has the bad luck to be accosted by one if his gods and tasked with tracking down John deBrun and delivering him to it or else Oaxyctl's life will be forfeit. The Teotl needs John alive because it believes he alone possesses secret codes to unlock the Ma Wi Jung. Whatever that is. (Heh. Is John "The Chosen One"?) Oaxyctl is placed in an impossible position: mortally afraid of his gods, still fundamentally an Aztecan despite working for the Nanagadans, he later comes to like John, whom he rescues from an Aztecan war party's sacrificial altar after John had been separated from his family and captured. Buckell keeps us wondering when, or if, Oaxyctl will betray John's trust.
Other viewpoint characters include John's son, Jerome, the hereditary Prime Minister (an oxymoron?) of Nanagada, Dihana, and the general of Nanagada's military (called mongoose-men), Haidan. The latter two have hard work to do and tough decisions to make after they find about the Azteca invasion. As one might expect from a government official in wartime, Dihana enacts some rather unlibertarian policies: e.g., seizing businesses; shutting down banks; declaring emergency conditions; setting curfews; turning the Tolteca (expat Aztecan) section of Capitol City into an internment camp, which of course alienates potential allies. Aside from his expected duties as general in planning the Nanagadan defenses, Haiden discovers the whereabouts of a possible superweapon left over from the time of the old fathers. It may be their only hope, so he exerts a great deal of effort to organizing an expedition to find it and plying Dihana for support and diverted resources.
John eventually reaches Capitol City with Oaxyctl's help, ahead of the Azteca hords. He desperately wants to get involved in the fighting to take revenge on the Azteca, but his old friend General Haiden convinces him to make another journey up north in search of the aforementioned lost weapon of the old fathers. He is to captain a new "state of the art" steamship to which tank treads can be attached so that it can traverse the ice. Prior to leaving, he meets Pepper briefly but is suspicious because he does not remember the man who claims to know him, and subsequent events lead him to vacillate between trusting and distrusting this dangerous man.
I have previously read and reviewed Tobias S. Buckell's Crystal Rain and Ragamuffin, both of which I enjoyed. On the other hand, I am skeptical of a...moreI have previously read and reviewed Tobias S. Buckell's Crystal Rain and Ragamuffin, both of which I enjoyed. On the other hand, I am skeptical of alarmist claims about global warming. So it was with some ambivalence, a mixture of excitement and trepidation, that I began reading my advance review copy (ARC) of Buckell's latest novel -- his first foray into techno-thrillers -- Arctic Rising (Tor, 2012). Though he had me worried a time or two, I was pleasantly surprised and glad I read it.
Arctic Rising is set in the near future -- the Earth is warmer and the Arctic Circle is largely ice-free year-round. States and corporations are racing to take advantage of the new oversea North Pole trade route and the untapped resources made accessible by the receding ice. As you might expect, this is a situation ripe for political conflict, and environmentalists are none-too-happy with the change in climate either.
Buckell handles the environmental angle fairly gracefully. The global warming issue mainly shows up as background, for the setting, and as a plot device. Speaking of the plot, don't read the GoodReads description of the book if you prefer to avoid major spoilers.
For the most part he avoids thumping you over the head with an ideological bludgeon. The one time I got really worried he was going to spoil the book for me was about 3/4ths of the way through when the co-founders of a green energy corporation go off on a talking point–ridden tag-team duologue, but let's just say that the impact was lessened by the way they were subsequently portrayed.
Unlike many environmentalists I've encountered, Buckell has no difficulty recognizing that global warming would be harmful to some but also beneficial to others; that, contrary to the frequent warnings of doom and gloom, it wouldn't be all bad. Sea levels would rise. But rising temperatures would open up more arable land in the north. While already hot regions might get detrimentally hotter, colder climes would get warmer as well and benefit from longer growing seasons. Resources previously buried under tons of ice would become open to exploitation. Moreover, once people have adjusted to the warmer temperatures, a return to colder temperatures of previous decades would result in winners and losers as well. There are no neutral climate changes; any anthropogenic alteration of the Earth's climate will have both positive and negative consequences.
As Arctic Rising opens, we are introduced to our sole viewpoint character -- one Anika Duncan, a mixed-race Nigerian airship pilot for the chronically underfunded United Nations Polar Guard. As the story progresses we gradually learn more about her colorful past as a child soldier and later a mercenary pilot. When offered her dream job by the UN, prior to the start of the action, Anika had jumped at the chance for a safer, less eventful career doing what she loved.
And things were nice and quiet for Anika… until a hunch leads her to take a second look at a freighter. When something radioactive in the ship sets off her neutron scatter camera, Anika, thinking they are just nuclear waste dumpers, orders them to prepare for boarding. But the crew respond by blowing her and her co-pilot, Tom, out of the sky and into the still-frigid waters of the Arctic. Something bigger than nuclear waste dumping is going on here.
Buckell launches us into a brisk thriller pace in the opening chapters and doesn't let up. Who were the attackers? Who is behind them? And what secrets were they trying to protect? Anika is determined to find out. But her life and career start to unravel as mysterious forces try to destroy her evidence and silence her for good. The plot takes us through some twists and turns. Anika's decisions are complicated by a number of characters whose motives and allegiances are uncertain.
Along the way Buckell introduces a diverse supporting cast of characters that lend Anika their aid. Among the most notable is Prudence Jones, who will remind Buckell fans of badass Pepper. Buckell even gives a nod to Nanagada. Prudence, or Roo (oddly), is a former MI6 operative of Caribbean descent turned freelance spy. He and other intelligence contractors for the Caribbean nations make clever use of the internet and social networks to perform first-rate work on a budget. And then there's Violet, the bar owner and drug dealer with an interesting past of her own and a romantic interest in Anika that has gone reluctantly unrequited on Anika's part.
What make Arctic Rising a techno-thriller are mainly the near-future setting and the central maguffin that I don't want to spoil for you. Suffice to say that it's a game-changing piece of technology that is linked to the environmental premise of the setting and that has disturbing military applications. There are few other technological advances in the book that stand out aside from the ubiquity of wireless key fobs for starting vehicles and internet-connected glasses with heads-up displays (HUDs). It would certainly be cool to have some of those "Google Goggle Goggles." Oh, and a lie detector with the disturbing ability to image your brain.
Buckell mishandled one aspect of technology in the novel for me though, an old piece of technology at that. As a gun owner who immersed myself in gun culture for a time when I bought my first guns, it bugged me to keep seeing characters with military training refer to the ammunition storage-and-feeding devices for small arms as clips instead of magazines. The pistols and rifles handled by characters in the novel use magazines, not clips.
That quibble aside, Arctic Rising is a fast-paced, entertaining novel that I would recommend even those who are skeptical of global warming read. Buckell is for the most part not heavy handed with the environmentalism. It's a fun read. And the pay off at the end is particularly worth it.