Adam Snider's Reviews > Spin State

Spin State by Chris Moriarty
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's review
Oct 01, 2011

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An excellent book, with a startlingly new spin on some basic tropes (alien life, the 'space marine' as a character trope, and artificial intelligence especially). After quickly finishing both this book and its sequel, Spin Control, I was disappointed to learn that Moriarty hadn't published any more in the series. The re-read which prompted this review was done in celebration of the fact that she seems to be preparing a third book, Ghost Spin, although the release date has yet to be announced.

It's the Future, and humanity has moved out into space using both slower-than-light travel and some slightly hand-wavey quantum tunneling effects to transport good, services, and information across a rapidly expanding envelope of space which has been divided into UN territory (including a ecologically devastated Earth) and the worlds of the Syndicates, whose population is comprised of clones whose genetic material is tailored for specific tasks - something which is explored more in the sequel than in this novel, where the Syndicates are more a background threat. The protagonist, Major Catharine Li, is a tough UN soldier who also happens to be a lesbian, to have Syndicate genes in her background (a serious business in a UN career), and to be increasingly disenchanted with the murky politics and political games which keep getting people around her or under her command killed. In concert with a mercurial AI, Cohen, she ends up on Compson's World - a mining planet which produces the unobtanium/Spice analogue which enables the UN's quantum-spin technology to function - investigating a murder which quickly transforms into a crisis for Compson's World's inhabitants (human and non) as well as humanity as a whole.

The plot is engaging and the characters are fairly well fleshed out, but what really struck me about this book was the way in which it engaged with many issues that science fiction more generally tends to background. The issue of prejudice based on genetics (Major Li) or against AIs (Cohen) are played straight but also dealt with in a more realistic and careful way than is usual. The economic situation of the Compson's World miners struck me at first as kind of unrealistic - what, we've settled other worlds but we've still got guys punching on the clock to go down shafts and get killed by explosive gas? Really? - but at the same time I give Moriarty serious kudos for suggesting that the future may hold economic and social injustices much like (if not identical to) the ones we see around us today. It reminded me of some of Richard K. Morgan's work, and not just because the two are often found near each other on the shelf.

The alien, when it appears, reminded me somewhat of the lifeforms encountered in Peter Watts' Blindsight, in that it is bluntly and honestly inhuman while also drawing on the writer's knowledge of and obvious fascination with Earth's wide variety of lifeforms - in this case, with coral reefs. The creature isn't as shocking or frightening as Watts' are, and the intended point seems more geared toward the problem of environmental overexploitation and ecological disaster (hinted at by the vision of Moriarty's future Earth as well) than Watts' focus on existential horror.

There are some weaknesses - as I mentioned, Irish miners IN SPAAAAACE won't necessarily be as easily believable as the Syndicates or Catherine Li and her compatriots in the UN military, and at several points in the narrative you start to lose track of what precisely is going on - the machinations and motivations of various groups and individuals involved - including Syndicate spies, UN politicians, labor unions and strike-breaking managers, a dead scientist and her genetically engineered lover, and several AIs - are cloudy at best. Spin Control, which I'll get around to reviewing eventually as well, was much more polished and clear in execution, but Spin State is well worth reading nonetheless, both in its own right and as a solid foundation for the second and - soon appearing, one can hope! - third installments.
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