I don't remember where I first heard, in relation to science fiction and fantasy, the axiom that the world of the novel's action is as much a character as the personalities in the narrative. World-as-character is the reason that "sensawunda" remains a term to conjure with in science fiction, and part of the reason, it seems, behind the journey/quest narratives in the fantasies of Jacqueline Carey, Elizabeth Bear, Steven Erikson, Robert Jordan, and others too numerous to name. In Queen of Nowhere, Jaine Fenn opens a window on a fascinating and vivid science fictional world, seen through the lens of an intriguing character—a world which, ultimately, proves more vivid and coherent than our protagonist.
Bez, a peripatetic hacker who moves from identity to identity as easily as shedding one set of clothes for another, is engaged in a private war against an enemy most of the rest of humanity believes defeated forever: the alien Sidhe, whose survivors look like human women but who have the power to manipulate and control minds. Bez, however, knows the truth: the Sidhe are still active, and still working to manipulate the future of humanity's societies. And Bez, who became aware of their existence after one compelled her then-lover to commit suicide, doesn't believe they can be anything other than harmful to humanity. Her war is a war of information-gathering, of mining data and gathering evidence so that eventually, ultimately, she can expose all the Sidhe at work in human space—and neutralize their threat for good.
But Bez is hardly the only human with a hidden agenda. These others whom she discovers, and who discover her, may be both an aid to her and a danger—and I'm not certain the narrative entirely makes up its mind who's on whose side until very late in the game.
Queen of Nowhere is space opera, but a space opera informed by a post-cyberpunk aesthetic. Paul McAuley, in an interview quoted in David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer's The Space Opera Renaissance (2006), advances a description of new space opera which may in part serve to illustrate Fenn's SFnal universe:
New space opera—the good new space opera—cheerfully plunders the tropes and toys of the old school and secondary sources from Blish to Delany, refurbishes them with up-to-the-minute science, and deploys them in epic narratives where intimate, human-scale stories are at least as relevant as the widescreen baroque backgrounds on which they cast their shadows. There are neither empires nor rigid technocracies dominated by a single Big Idea in the new space opera; like cyberpunk, it’s eclectic and pluralistic. (pp. 768-9)
Pluralistic is the word for Queen of Nowhere. No overarching authority governs humanity's settlements: each of the worlds, and the non-planetary "habs" which are Bez's native environment, operate independently of each other, each with their own rules or standards. They are connected by freighters, information (in the form of faster-than-light communication, including the "beevee boards," an expensive interstellar version of internet newsgroups), and for the sufficiently wealthy, starliners. The habs support a full spectrum of human life, from a poor underclass to the enormously wealthy, while interludes from the point of view of Bez's contacts (her agents, and occasionally her pawns) provide a wider view of human space than Bez's (mission-oriented to the point of obsession) point of view can give.
Bez visits only one planet in the course of the narrative. The planet Gracen attracts tourists because its religion believes in "purifying congress"—sex. The planet's culture is sketched in outline: eschewing excess material wealth, it's a society which demarcates social space based on the gender of the participants. And on their partnership status: married women and single women socialize in different spaces to married and single men, a distinction which even extends to how virtual space—the "infoscape"—is constructed. Bez's interaction with this society—as an outsider, a person not interested in "purifying congress," someone trying to investigate an anomalous event without being revealed as inhabiting a false role—is one of the few times I've seen science fiction engage with and problematize tourism and the tourist-native encounter, as opposed to exoticizing the unfamiliar. Bez's problems as an outsider are the problems of someone who only has a visitor's understanding of the society, and only a visitor's access, but she's not particularly interested in its strangeness except inasmuch as it poses an obstacle to her endeavors.
It's also one of the few times I've seen sunlight cast as something strange and exotic: Bez, as a native of the space-based habs, has never been in direct, unfiltered sunlight before. And she's not entirely sure she likes it.
Queen of Nowhere is the fifth novel in a loosely connected series that began with Principles of Angels (2008). Although I'm told all five can stand alone, this is the first I've read, and it is possible that by starting here, one misses out on context that would provide Queen of Nowhere with additional emotional and/or thematic resonance, for on the whole the novel feels a little off-balance, particularly as we build towards the conclusion. The book begins well and vividly, with Bez being arrested by the local cops upon her debarkation from a starliner (under one of her many identities), and needing to rapidly and efficiently effect an escape. The action-oriented set pieces are among of Queen of Nowhere's highlights: the climax involves two assassins and a personal showdown with a Sidhe, with a solid clip and entertaining daring-do. In fact, when Bez is actively working towards completing a definite goal, the pace ticks along excellently. The story may lag slightly in the middle, but both beginning and conclusion whip things right along.
Characterization, though . . . On her own, Bez is both fascinating and consistent. When she's interacting with other people, her characterization seems to waver. Take Imbarin Tierce, a man with power and an agenda which seems to tally with hers. Bez seems too ready to take him at his word, and not plan for the possibility of betrayal or manipulation, in ways which seem out of place with how the text tells us she behaves in relation to her mission. The denouement, too, feels to come from out of the blue, and—at least for me—changes the entire context of what has come before.
Though its flaws and oddnesses of characterization prove distracting at times, ultimately they don't take away from Queen of Nowhere's vivid set-pieces and appealing worldbuilding. It's an energetic space opera, an interesting and entertaining entry in an old genre. On the whole, I found it an enjoyable novel: because of it, I'll be reading more of Fenn's work in the near future.
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