I was always rather pleased with this review, though I wonder how well Metaplanetary by Tony Daniel is remembered now. This review first appeared in The New York Review of Science Fiction 166, June 2002.
In her 1963 account of the trial of Adolf Eichmann, Hannah Arendt came up with the notion of the banality of evil, though thinking about Eichmann and his banal companions at the Wannsee Conference where they discussed the mechanism of the Final Solution might lead one rather to imagine the bureaucracy of evil. Such thoughts come to mind readily when considering Tony Daniel’s new novel, Metaplanetary, which is shot through with references to the Second World War, though his villain is neither banal nor bureaucratic.
Such terms are a way of encompassing mass movements — the Nazi state, Beria’s Cheka — where ordinary humans become perpetrators of extraordinary inhumanity. But that is not how, in the main, we like to think of evil. Evil is an absolute, the province of monsters, and wherever such evil monsters arise we refuse to allow ourselves to see any shreds of humanity in them. The evil has to be pure because otherwise it might not really be evil, and hence not really bad enough for the extremes of revulsion we feel. During the last century we seem to have raised an inordinate number of vile men to the dark majesty of ‘evil monster’ — Josef Stalin, Adolf Hitler, Pol Pot, Saddam Hussain, Osama bin Laden. One hundred years ago, when Mr Kurtz breathed ‘the horror … the horror’, he was confronting a darkness inside his own heart. But these monsters, surely, have a darkness far too deep and vast to be within any ordinary human heart; they must be, literally, heartless, inhuman. By seeing them as monsters, we can fear them and despise them without ever having to imagine that what makes them could be inside us too. Amés, the dictator whose malign presence spreads throughout this novel, is of their company.
We have a need for these icons of evil, just as we have a need for their contrary, good. The old war of good and evil is still something that excites our imagination, just as it confirms some emotional or spiritual conception of the character of the world in which we find ourselves. Hitler and Stalin and the rest make real something that we normally meet only in fables — but we have known those fables since birth, and they can feel more real to us than the everyday world. Which is where science fiction has a distinct advantage over realist fiction. Because we cannot see the purity of their darkness inside us, these monsters stand, as it were, outside reality. In a novel of nuance and character, how could they be portrayed without reducing their monstrosity or abandoning the subtlety of shading we recognise as a mark of quality in realist fiction? In science fiction, as in fantasy, we can merge fable with reality; there is no betrayal of principle in using the broad primary sweeps of colour in a good versus evil plot.
Daniel uses a palette of black and white with the dash that a good realist author would bring to the greys in between. Amés is a deep-dyed scoundrel of a larger than life monstrosity we rarely encounter in fiction these days. He is unfettered by any gentler trait that might suggest he is human. As Hitler was a painter, so Amés was a composer (this devil does have the best tunes). But this does not reveal a sensitive side to his character; rather, Daniel is at pains to emphasise that the emotion which comes out in his music is rage. Sexually he is a contradiction, both a masochist and a sadist (queasy scenes of sexual violence crop up frequently through the book), but all that really matters in this is to suggest that Amés loves pain. In any portrayal of history’s monsters we are used to the casual and arbitrary way in which they deal with underlings; Amés does this to an extreme degree. In the midst of the war he unleashes there is not one of his senior commanders who does not suffer immense pain and humiliation at his hands. If this were real one would wonder at their continued loyalty, at their continued efforts to advance his cause. But this is not real; it is cartoonish and arbitrary and Amés has nothing to do except display his nastiness at every opportunity. Despite this (or perhaps because of it), despite the fact that he doesn’t even appear until a third of the way through the novel and then steps onto the stage only sporadically thereafter, Amés is still the most vivid and compelling character in the book, and the thing that holds together a story that could all too easily fly apart under the impetus of its too rich invention.
Every evil needs a good, of course, but though several candidates for hero are suggested, the only one who comes near to taking on the role is Colonel, later General, Sherman. In this case it is Roger Sherman (his son, Leo, also plays a significant role in the adventure), but the parallel with the American Civil War is clearly intentional. Daniel’s Sherman even quotes, without attribution, William Tecumseh Sherman’s famous remark that war is all hell. And there are other unattributed quotations from, for example, Abraham Lincoln. However, the war that most closely parallels Daniel’s invention is the Second World War: the fate of what we might call the digital people in this world more nearly reflects the persecution of the Jews in Nazi Germany than the liberation of the slaves in the Civil War. Nevertheless, Daniel is wedded to his Civil War symbolism, and there are times when Sherman seems to be there more to carry the symbols than to carry the story. Though he leads the brave resistance of the plucky little outer planets to the might of Amés’s blitzkrieg, though he is actually on stage much more than his enemy, Sherman has none of the colour or the verve of his opposite number. This may be intentional. What we are told in all these conflicts, from the war against Hitler to the War Against Terrorism, is that the evil monster is not defeated by a single shining knight but by ordinary decent people working together. Sherman’s role, therefore, is not to be the hero but to bring those ordinary decent people together. It means that Sherman is no big, brash figure who will balance Amés. And because Daniel is better at the grand gesture than the small detail, Sherman is less well defined, less identifiable as a character.
Still, Sherman does at least get things done. Too many of the potential heroes in this novel seem to be curiously inactive. There is Father Andre Sud, a priest in a religion which doesn’t appear to believe in any gods. As the novel opens he comes to believe, for reasons that are never explained, that an old friend of his, Thaddeus Kaye, holds the key to the coming conflict. Kaye is a LAP, someone who has downloaded his personality into the grist, the network of nanotechnology and computer software that reaches into every corner of the solar system. This means he can exist simultaneously in several different places and times. But any thought that this might make him special is quickly dashed when we discover that LAPs are actually quite common in this universe. Kaye, meanwhile, has disappeared long before, so Sud sets off to find him. A few pages later, without any apparent difficulty, Sud runs Kaye to ground … and the two disappear from the story for most of the rest of the novel. When they finally resurface, we continue to be told how special Kaye is, but he does nothing and gives us no clue as to how and why he might be special.
Sud and Kaye are names attached to not much in the way of character, but Daniel is much more successful with the minor characters and the innocents. There is, for instance, Jill who begins the novel as a ferret killing rats for Kaye in some high-tech junkyard at the wrong end of nowhere. Through the wonders of grist she is somehow transformed into a human so she can continue Kaye’s search for an old girlfriend while he goes off with Sud. Like so many characters in this book, she then disappears from the narrative for ages before resurfacing as some sort of Wonder Woman who rescues Leo and Aubry at a key moment. (Buffy? Xena? Does every paladin have to be a woman these days?) A super-skilled fighter with the courage and skill to get out of any situation however bad it may appear, Jill is the only figure on the side of the angels whose vividness rivals that of Amés, but that’s because both are caricatures not real or believable people.
The best characters in the book, at least in terms of fleshed out, believable humanity, are the Graytor family, Kelly, Danis, Aubry and Sint. This is a universe in which there is an almost incalculable amount of interaction between human and digital. Everyone has a sort of computerised extension of themselves, known as a convert, some of which seem to have acquired independent existence. There are also AIs with human personalities. People, converts, AIs slip in and out of virtual realities without really noticing the difference. The grist provides an instantaneous information link with anyone anywhere in the universe. Kelly Graytor is human; his wife, Danis, is an AI; their children, Aubry and Sint, born by a means Daniel is deliberately vague about, are a mixture of both. They live on Mercury, the centre of the financial industry, where Kelly is a very successful investment analyst.
But as the novel opens their position has become dangerous. Amés is using the digital people, converts, AIs and the like, in the same way Hitler used the Jews. Of course it is possible to argue that Hitler sincerely believed that in attempting to cleanse the world of the Jews he was doing the right thing, a potential crack in his monstrosity. Daniel does not make that mistake with Amés; rather he makes it absolutely clear that Amés is acting from no other motive than self-agrandisement. What’s more, other than the Graytor family, we see no ordinary people during the course of the novel so we have no idea whether digital people are generally held in fear, hatred, disgust or what. But all the digital people we meet are carefully presented as being nicer, more human, more worthy of our sympathy than anyone else. We are left in no doubt whatsoever that Amés is wrong.
Nevertheless the Graytors must escape the inner planets, the worlds and moons as far out as Mars which are linked together by a network of cables whose nature and workability, frankly, escape me. Here Amés holds sway, but his rule does not extend to the outer planets, beyond the asteroid belt, where the cables cannot stretch. A substantial sub-plot of the novel follows their escape. Or rather, we follow the family off Mercury, where they are forced to split up. At which point Kelly and his youngest child, Sint, apparently get clean away because they disappear from the narrative completely. Aubry links up with Leo Sherman, who seems to work for the anti-Amés underground, and embarks on a madcap adventure through the interstices of the web that links the worlds. Danis, meanwhile, is captured and ends up in a concentration camp on Mars where she is subject to experiments by a Mengele-type character who takes away her memories and feeds her false memories to find out how much this affects her sense of identity.
Each of these threads comes to an abrupt end without reaching any resolution. In the case of Danis, she suddenly disappears from the story in the middle of one of Mengele’s experiments, with a quarter of the novel still to go. But this is true of just about every strand of this multi-stranded story. There is almost too much going on in this novel. The cables that link the planets, grist, converts, LAPs, these are just a fraction of the inventions Daniel pours into his book. There are, for instance, the cloudships, humans who have evolved into something not unlike a comet and who are capable of independent travel as far as other stars. There are people who lead independent existences in three different places at the same time. There are others who die and come back to life. There are the strange vein-like passages that Aubry and Leo must use in their journeys between the worlds. Is it any wonder that Daniel seems to forget huge chunks of his novel for vast swathes of time?
And on top of all that, there is a war going on. We see space battles and devastating new weapons and sneak attacks and betrayals and mysteries. What we don’t see, strangely for a war novel, is the outbreak of hostilities. On Mars, when Andre Sud sets out to find Kaye, there are rumours of war but all seems peaceful. On Mercury, the financial hub of the Solar System, there is panic and financial collapse (though this doesn’t seem to have any effect anywhere else — when we briefly glimpse the wealthiest families in the system later on they seem totally unaffected by any financial concerns). And the next thing we know a fleet is approaching Triton and other moons and planets have already fallen. The good guys suffer setbacks and a few daring victories against the odds and … the novel ends.
There is not a single word anywhere in this book to suggest that it is not a stand-alone novel. There is no ‘Book One’ on the cover, no ‘to be continued’ at the end, no sly hint in the blurb, the author’s bio doesn’t even say he is working on the next volume. But there is not a single thread of plot that reaches a satisfactory resolution. Most have just been abandoned dangling somewhere in the middle of the book. There will be a sequel; this is probably part one of a trilogy or something even longer. Though it might prove difficult to sustain suspense over the long term, since there are more than enough hints already about how the whole thing ends. (And anyway, what contemporary American author could allow Hitler or bin Laden to come out the winner?)
I don’t mind any of this. War is a complicated business, and Daniel is making a serious attempt to portray how strange and confused it can be. This takes space. What’s more, the sheer strangeness of this future, one of the most consistently presented and most impressive aspects of this book, also takes time to describe. Over the entire sequence, if he can sustain the invention and scope of this novel, this could be a breathtakingly important work, the work to catapult Tony Daniel to the forefront of contemporary hard sf writers. What worries me is that the complexity he achieves in the progress of the war and the nature of the universe is abandoned when it comes to the moral and human dimension. No war, not even the war against Hitler or the war against terrorism, is as simplistic in terms of motivations as the one Daniel presents. I am left wondering, can a fable of good versus evil be sustained across a detailed, multi-volume examination of future war? Can a detailed, multi-volume examination of future war be sustained with a one-dimensional villain like Amés?