I know I’m jumping the queue a bit—my next review was supposed to be of William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition, and I’m already a dozen books behind—but I just finished this book tonight, and I really need to get this one out right away. Regular readers of this blog will know that I’m a fan of cyberpunk fiction, as evidenced by my recent rereading of William Gibson’s work. I’ve also enjoyed every ECW book I’ve ever read, right back to Yashin Blake’s Nowhere Fast, which I reviewed for The Globe and Mail in the summer of 2004. When I heard that ECW was going to be publishing science fiction and fantasy novels, starting with a cyberpunk novel, I knew I had to check it out. I asked for an ARC (an uncorrected proof, or advance review copy, for those not in the biz), and they sent one along. Given all that, I almost feel bad about what I’m about to say, but I agree with blogger Martin Lewis, that fantasy and science fiction reviewers must raise their game.
This is the worst book I’ve ever read. Ever.
Unfortunately that’s not hyperbole. There are so many problems with this book it’s difficult to know where to begin. The plot is incredibly busy. There are clones, and something called “v-space”, which is a kind of virtual reality construct accessed via surgically implanted computer parts, similar to those found in William Gibson’s Neuromancer and Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash. There are mega-corporations that are in conflict with governments, travel to off-world colonies via wormholes, and an alien blood from another plane of existence that grants humans immortality when they dissolve a sample under their tongues, via a virus tailored to each individual’s DNA. And all of it in 258 pages. It’s just far, far too much. I know the rule taught in every creative writing class on earth is “show, don’t tell,” but Stanton doesn’t take nearly enough time for even basic exposition, and so there are concepts and plot points, important ones, that come and go so quickly that they make no sense at all. There’s a massive power struggle going on, for example, between a non-profit group called the Eternal Research Institute (which is also a kind of government unto itself, possessing its own police force, among other things), the various mega-corporations and governments that fund it, and the amorphous, poorly-defined governmental/corporate body that rules the Cromeus colonies on the other side of a wormhole called the Macpherson Gate. Now the plot is stupidly complex without that power struggle, but somehow, somehow, it also hinges on that conflict in a way that I can’t quite make sense of. Unfortunately nothing, not a goddamn thing, about who the powers other than the ERI actually are, or what they hope to achieve, is ever adequately explained. It’s all just hinted at with a bunch of knowing glances, nods, winks, and dialogue that’s got a dramatic tone but is functionally meaningless. In fact, nearly every single aspect of the plot is dealt with in exactly the same way. One or two of these plot elements could be taken in hand, stripped down, cleaned up, and salvaged, turned into something meaningful and coherent, but that is perhaps the best thing I can say of the plot, or indeed the book as a whole.
Reconciliation, which is apparently the first book in a whole series, is virtually impossible to follow when Stanton tries to inject any action, tension, or conflict. The quieter moments are easy to follow, but they are dull and cliché-ridden set-pieces, often seeming to have no real purpose other than to slow things down, or to reiterate ad nauseam how the protagonists are “the best” at whatever it is they do, or how they trust no one, or to display intensely juvenile relationships with members of the opposite sex (actually, the representations of intimacy and sexuality in Reconciliation can be downright creepy, as Rix, the 20-something-but-acts-like-a-fourteen-year-old son of Mia and Zakariah, actually has sex with a clone of his aunt). The pacing winds up being schizophrenic at best.
For a novel that relies so heavily on high technology, computer network technology in particular, and its integration into society, Stanton knows shockingly little about it. Even less than Gibson did when he wrote Neuromancer back in the early ’80s, and that was almost nothing. Almost every reader of science fiction is willing to accept a little of what Charlie Stross calls “handwavium,” the one or two impossible things that the author will wave their hands over and pretend are possible just to keep the plot coherent or, more often, prevent nitpicking from undermining thematic structures or philosophical/social metaphors. As long as we don’t feel like we’re being fed pages and pages of bullshit because the author just doesn’t know any better, we’re generally okay with it. Stanton just doesn’t know any better. He argues in favour of “v-space” because webcams are too bandwidth intensive (apparently not realizing that the bandwidth required for even a small persistent virtual world that is accessed regularly by millions is astronomical compared to webcam feeds, never mind one on the scale of “v-space”). He attributes rendering errors within the virtual environment to “feedback,” a word that is utterly meaningless in such a context, and suggests that viruses are spread and file systems corrupted when users come into contact with each others’ “energy” in virtual space, which is such astonishing horseshit it’s not even worth explaining why it’s wrong. In this regard Reconciliation is not just ignorant, it is sometimes offensively so, especially since Stanton is writing for an audience that will almost certainly know better. An hour on Wikipedia probably could have given Stanton enough solid research material to present a more plausible explanation for his “v-space,” and the mechanics thereof.
I’d like to discuss language for a moment. Most of us know, almost instinctively, that we choose what words to use based on how they operate on two levels: the denotative, and the connotative. The denotative level is the simple one; it’s all about the literal meanings of words. The words “beautiful,” “gorgeous,” and “hot,” when used in the context of, say, describing a young woman, all mean roughly the same thing; looking at her gives the speaker pleasure. However the connotations of those words are all dramatically different. “Beautiful” and “gorgeous” are both fairly formal, and “beautiful” can often be linked to filial affection (so I can tell my cousin, on her wedding day, that she looks “beautiful,” and it will be an appropriate compliment), while “hot” is informal and explicitly sexual, and potentially also carries overtones of objectification. Words have social and emotional baggage they drag around with them, which is why choosing the correct word is so damned important in fiction (and even more important in poetry). Part of what makes writing an art is making effective, and sometimes surprising or provocative use of words on both levels. I’ve even heard of poets who rhyme the meanings of words (both denotative and connotative) rather than their sounds. Pretty awesome, right? Yeah, Stanton doesn’t get it. The sentence-by-sentence, word-by-word writing in Reconciliation is atrocious at best, displaying, as Martin Lewis has said about another writer, “[s]tunning incompetence at all aspects of writing.” It is just a mess. There were times, when reading this book, that I felt pity for the copy editor and embarrassed for the author. Stanton seems completely oblivious to the idea that words operate on a connotative level as well as the denotative, and as a result he is constantly using words that, based on the context, imply things he clearly doesn’t mean. There are whole sentences rendered meaningless by his wildly inappropriate diction (one of my favourites was when he used “regalia,” which carries with it associations of hyper-formality and ostentation, when he was un-ironically referring to low-paid technicians in grubby jumpsuit-style uniforms). Stanton also frequently uses words whose denotative meaning is wrong for what he’s trying to say, like someone who has heard a word but only sort of knows what it means, yet continues to use it regularly (like, to choose one of the least glaring examples, his use of “monogram” when he actually meant “logo,” or even “wordmark,” a wordmark being a standardized typographical representation of a company name, a kind of logo subtype, while “monogram” refers specifically to the stylized representation of an individual person’s initials). Stanton seems stuck in the trap of “the elegant variation.” Mark Sarvas writes an excellent blog that goes by that name, and I’m going to steal his definition:
The Elegant Variation is “Fowler’s (1926, 1965) term for the inept writer’s overstrained efforts at freshness or vividness of expression. Prose guilty of elegant variation calls attention to itself and doesn’t permit its ideas to seem naturally clear. It typically seeks fancy new words for familiar things, and it scrambles for synonyms in order to avoid at all costs repeating a word, even though repetition might be the natural, normal thing to do: The audience had a certain bovine placidity, instead of The audience was as placid as cows. Elegant variation is often the rock, and a stereotype, a cliché, or a tired metaphor the hard place between which inexperienced or foolish writers come to grief. The familiar middle ground in treating these homely topics is almost always the safest. In untrained or unrestrained hands, a thesaurus can be dangerous.”
I could probably find a half-dozen examples of “the elegant variation” (or one of the other diction problems I mentioned above) on every single page. Every. Single. Page. But that doesn’t stop Stanton from repeating certain words to an absurd degree (I think he officially used up his lifetime allotments of the words “grace,” “graceful,” and “gracefully” by page 150, as apparently his characters are only capable of moving “gracefully” or “with grace” or, on special occasions, “with ease” or even “with graceful ease”). Stanton also uses far, far too many adjectives and adverbs. If you were to cut out the unnecessary ones, and I mean only the unnecessary ones, I bet you could shave almost a hundred pages from the book. I’m not even a little bit kidding. I would quote some representative passages, but as I’m reviewing this book from an ARC (which means there’s still some minor typographical errors and such) that wouldn’t be entirely fair, and there’s also a legal warning on the back cover telling me not to.
Finally, there is simply too much Jesus in this book. That’s probably the wrong way to put it, but there it is. Stanton obviously has religious leanings (he’s apparently regularly published in periodicals such as ChristianWeek and Christian Communicator), which in itself is not an issue worth mentioning. There’s any number of religious writers whom I respect, and whose work I enjoy, and their religious beliefs are entirely irrelevant to me. What makes it a problem here is that the world of Stanton’s novel seems to embody a kind of Sunday school theology. The world of Reconciliation is almost exclusively one of thieves, assassins, politicians and fixers, yet the strongest language I can find in the book are the words “bum” and “butt.” Nobody ever lies, or says anything insincere, and despite regular statements to the contrary, everybody trusts almost everybody else. There are references to drinking and drugs (though not, if I’m remembering correctly, illegal drugs), but I don’t recall anyone actually using those things. Christian metaphors and symbols are everywhere, and they are painfully obvious, though I think Stanton was actually trying to be subtle. Religion is almost never mentioned, but everyone seems to think in specifically Christian spiritual terms, but without any of Christianity’s rich history of exegesis and philosophical inquiry. In fact, at the end of the book, one of the characters achieves immortality (as in, she has the alien virus in her system) through an act of faith—after seeing someone sacrifice themselves—that is a pretty explicit, if clumsy, allegory of Christian salvation. This religious influence is unfortunate, because it doesn’t serve the story; the story serves it, and the book, which is weak in so many other ways, is weakened even further as a result.
I was really looking forward to seeing what ECW would offer as their first science fiction title, since I really respect their publishing program, but Reconciliation was disappointing in the extreme. I cannot fathom how (as the author bio tells me) Stanton’s work has managed to be published in so many venues in so many countries, and translated into so many languages. Canada needs good publishers to take genre work seriously, but Reconciliation was a project more deserving of a vanity press, and ECW will need to do much, much better than this if their science fiction and fantasy line is going to succeed.
The Bloodlight Chronicles: Reconciliation was my first selection for the Fourth Canadian Book Challenge. Next up is William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition (I promise).