Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Fine Line Between SF and a Double-Dog Dare

Christian Cantrell, Containment

Concept-driven science fiction can easily backfire, because it relies on the audience’s willingness to follow the idea more than the characters or plot. Science fiction probably has better audiences for that than most other genres, but still, it’s risky. Christian Cantrell’s debut novel requires readers to invest over 150 pages to reach his real, king-snake crawling story. I almost didn’t, so I fear less driven readers won’t, either.

Deep within the claustrophobic confines of humanity’s first Venus colony, Arik lies recovering from injuries suffered during his unauthorized airlock walk. Huge chunks of his memory are missing, and his life’s work in terraforming is gone from his computer. His pregnant wife is talking in riddles, and his father is clearly lying about something. So Arik starts digging for the truth. What he finds casts doubt on his entire life and everything his people have accomplished.

Throughout the first half of this 300-page book, I kept rolling my eyes. The science appeared decades out of date, and the characters didn’t so much talk to each other as discourse on themes. (The promo copy compares this novel to Orson Scott Card, but the dispassionate characters and expository narration remind me more of Isaac Asimov.) Several times I had to resist the temptation to stick this book in a bottom drawer and forget it.

I’m glad I didn’t, because around the midpoint, we fall into unexpected revelations that force us to rethink what we’ve just seen. The big reveal is neither original nor particularly surprising (I got it twenty pages before our “supergenius” protagonist), but Cantrell handles it with panache. And even if we feel we’ve seen something like this before, Cantrell keeps it smart, with degrees of nuance that ensure his revelation feels at least somewhat new.

But you have to push through a very long slough of despond to reach the real meat of Cantrell’s story. No one could blame you if, well before page 100, you chucked the book aside—though you should not. If you want to know what makes this book worth reading, keep going, but you’ll find spoilers. If you want to enjoy the book and be surprised, stop now, realizing this book will yield its generous rewards only after a long and difficult investment.

Our lives rely profoundly on testimony. We expect our peers, elders, and senses to report the world accurately. Without their honest testimony, we have no basis for judging truth. That’s why philosophers from Plato and Descartes to The Matrix and M. Night Shyamalan get such mileage out of questioning what happens when everything we think we know proves false. It’s a fertile conundrum that is far from played out.

The wobbly science and sociology in the first half exists so that, in the second half, Cantrell can tear it all back down again. The world we, and our protagonist, thought we knew turns out to be something between eugenics and a rat in a maze. Though I won’t reveal the particulars—Arik’s dawning realization is half the appeal—I will go so far as to say that Cantrell rewards doubt beyond merely systemic, into a realm of existentialism that would make Kierkegaard blanche.

With science fiction, unfortunately, changing technologies mean a story’s details get outmoded long before its philosophical precepts wear out. (Or have you tried reading Philip K. Dick lately?) Weirdly, Cantrell tries to straddle the line between scientific accuracy and rococo technology, the two traditional SF options. In the first half of the book, I found this very distracting. Only in the second half did I realize this distancing effect may have been intentional.

Cantrell, as it turns out, wants you to call BS on his creation. His writing style is almost a challenge: can you tell the difference between an error and a clue? What constitutes “outside reality” in a life defined by constraints? Cantrell’s language in the waning pages suggests that the revelations will not end when you close the book. Layers of reality may linger, waiting to be uncovered by the next supergenius in the pipeline.

I would be remiss if I told everyone to read this book. Christian Cantrell has engineered a story that will select its own audience, and that audience will want to revel in ideas as much as action. If that’s you, resist the temptation to walk away from this book early. If you do, you’re cheating yourself out of a smart, subtle denouement that would remind you why you read science fiction anyway.

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