Monday, October 10, 2011

A Brief Look at Debris

Jo Anderton
Angry Robot
464pp mass-market paperback
$7.99 US, $8.99 CAN
ebook £4.49 / $5.99

This review would have been up a few days ago if I had had access to a computer.  My son didn't have school today, so we took advantage of the long weekend to go visit my parents.  Only their computer was in the shop, and I hadn't brought mine along.  So instead of a post about every other day for a few days, this is (hopefully) the first of at least four days in a row with new material.

But you probably aren't interested in that.  What you want to know is if the book is any good.  Am I right?  Of course I am.  Aren't I always?  (Don't answer that.)

Yes, this is a good book, but I have a quibble with the publisher about it.

This is the third book I've reviewed from Angry Robot in the last six weeks.  The first one, Roil, was listed by the publisher as fantasy, while I felt it was more science fiction, or at the outside, science fantasy.  The second novel, Darkness Falling, I considered to be fantasy, although the publisher listed it as science fiction.  Now we come to Debris, a novel I consider to be science fantasy if not outright fantasy, while the publisher calls guessed it, science fiction.

I'll explain my reasons in a minute.  To understand, you need some background.  Tanyana is an architect.  In this world, that's a slightly different job than it is in ours.  Tanyana is capable of seeing and controlling pions, which are the building blocks of matter.  They almost act as if they are alive.  When pions are used to make things, build things, produce energy, or for any other purpose, they generate waste called debris.  The debris acts like it's alive at times as well.

There's just one problem with this scenario.  I don't buy it.  As a practicing physicist, I can assure you the universe doesn't act that way, at least not the one we inhabit.  Well, maybe the one that weird guy in the office at the end of the hall lives in, but not the rest of us.  The pions described in this book aren't the ones I'm familiar with.  I was expecting a science fiction novel, but that's not what I got, at least by my definition.  Because the physical world described here clearly isn't ours, I would have to classify this as fantasy.  I think what threw me was Ms. Anderton's use of the word "pion", which has a particular meaning for me.

Anyway, once I got over all that, I quite enjoyed the book.  This is a story of a woman who doesn't so much fall from great heights as she is pushed.  Literally.  The opening chapter finds Tanyana leading her circle of binders (people who can control pions) in building a giant statue.  Something goes wrong, they lose control, and Tanyana is thrown off the statue.  Her injuries are such that she can no longer see pions.

She can, however, see debris.  Debris is like entropy personified, although not everyone can see it, just like not everyone can see pions.  That doesn't make it any less destructive.  Debris has to be collected and contained or all sorts of bad things will happen.  Assigned to a collecting team that doesn't want her, Tanyana must figure out who is behind not only her disgrace, but the systematic campaign to ruin everyone who ever did her a favor. 

Collectors are at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder, while binders are near the top.  Things go from bad to worse, as Tanyana's life unravels and she is forced to piece a new one together, while eruptions of debris are increasing and becoming more deadly.  All the while she is stalked by the mysterious and frightening puppet men.

Not everyone is who or what they appear to be.  There are mysteries here, and not all of them are solved.  The ones that are, well, they still have plenty of open questions. Important pieces of history appear to have been lost.  Some of the characters have surprising depths.  Once I got into the story and past my physics hangups, I was hooked.  The characters are real, growing and changing.  They are individuals you care about.  The mysteries are intriguing, the plot captivating, the villains frightening.  And characters from children's stories in this world, well, they may just turn out to be real. 

Ms. Anderton is an Australian writer, and this is her first novel, so her name may not be familiar to most of you.  Remember it.  This book promises to be the launch of what should be a successful and major career in the field.  It's the first of a series, it's fresh and original, and I'll be reading the next installment.

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