I have known Marc Gascoigne of Angry Robot for far longer than either of us is prepared to admit, and have a great deal of faith in his literary taste (and his musical taste for that matter). I was therefore delighted to see him win a World Fantasy Award for Best Editor recently. Also I take careful note of new authors that he picks up. After all, he brought Lauren Beukes to the attention of US and UK audiences. Who might be next?
One of the recent debuts from the Robot Army is Debris by Sydney-based writer, Joanne Anderton. It is billed as one of those far-future SF stories in which science is so advanced that it looks like magic to us. That certainly appears to be the case. Our heroine, Tanyana, is a “pion-binder” who works as an architect. What are pions? Goodness only knows. Maybe they are some sort of quantum dot building material, or something even stranger out of a Will McCarthy novel. The Angry Robot categorization for the book, which often gives clues, includes the tag “sentient matter”. Whatever they are, Tanyana can control them with her mind, and make buildings from them. It is kind of like being a 3D printer, but all controlled with your imagination. And, of course, buildings need structure, they can’t just be cast out of a single type of material.
Anyway, Tanyana makes buildings from pions, and other people make other things. Apparently just about everything in this world runs on pions in one way or another. Anything that doesn’t is a valuable antique. Even electricity has been replaced by pion flows. Anyone with any sense will immediately spot that this is a society that has all of its technological eggs in one very small basket.
What is more, pion technology is not perfect. The stuff appears to decay, rather unpredictably, producing stuff called “debris”? I came to think of it rather like rust. It appears wherever pions are used, and if you leave it to fester then it quickly grows and messes up whatever it is growing on. Consequently, someone has to clean the stuff off. It is dirty work, but…
That gives us a two-level world: pion-binders who make stuff, and debris collectors whose job it is to keep the muck off the gleaming surfaces of our bright, high-tech future. Guess which group is an under-class?
The divisions here, however, are not solely economic. If pions are used to make everything, then the ability to manipulate them, however weakly, is vital. Some people, like Tanyana, take to it like a duck to water. Others can’t even see pions. Guess who ends up as debris collectors (because yes, they can see debris)? Technology has always been a cause of social division. If you are innumerate then using money is difficult. Without Internet access, much of our modern society is closed to you. But in Anderton’s world, access to the wealthy classes is controlled by biology. If you can’t see pions, you can’t even check your bank account, or see how much you have been charged for a transaction.
It is fairly clear, however, that this world we have been introduced to has forgotten far more than it knows about pion technology. There’s no real understanding of the nature of pions or debris, or why one gives rise to the other. Furthermore, the debris collectors are all fitted with seriously nifty power suits that remind me of the armor worn by Moneta in Dan Simmons’ Hyperion books. They look like they could be rather lethal if they put their minds to it.
So here’s the plot. Right at the beginning of the book — so this is not a spoiler — Tanyana and her team of assistants are working on an enormous statue. A government inspector turns up unexpectedly. Out of the blue, the work gets infected by some very nasty pions that no one but Tanyana can see. They destroy the statue. Tanyana ends up in hospital, and when she wakes up she’s in disgrace and being fitted for a debris collector suit. Suddenly she can’t see pions any more, but can see debris. This is explained as a result brain damage. Yeah, right.
Anyone with any sense can see that this is a set-up. Unfortunately few of the characters in the book, especially Tanyana, are very smart. Rather than trying to find out what is going on, she persists in assuming that some dreadful accident has taken place, and in trying to clear her name. Things like being able to pay rent and buy food now she no longer has a high profile career don’t occur to her until it is too late. She does not come over as the intelligent, determined, resourceful professional that she is supposed to be. It is one thing to introduce a character who is young and unworldly and have her behave in a naïve fashion. It is quite another to take someone who is relentlessly competent and have them fall apart in front of the reader’s eyes. It can be done, but it isn’t easy, and Anderton doesn’t quite convince here.
Fortunately this doesn’t detract too much from the book. The world that Anderton has created is very interesting, and she does a good job of slowly leaking hints about it to the reader as the book progresses. There is a central mystery here, and the solution is almost certainly somewhere in history. We want to read on to find out what the heck is going on.
In addition the pacing of the book is very good. You might spend a fair amount of time yelling at Tanyana over how dumb she is being, but events do overtake her very quickly and that in turn drags us along. There will, inevitably, be more books — the subtitle of “The Veiled Worlds” on the cover tells you that — but this is a good thing as we have a lot to learn. With Tanyana’s life in tatters, hopefully she can now get back to being the smart and resourceful person we were introduced to at the beginning and deal with the bad guys. There’s lot of promise here, and I look forward to finding out where the series goes.