Good book: FOOL’S WAR by Sarah Zettel
I just finished a novel I picked up at the used-book store recently, Fool’s War by Sarah Zettel. This 1997 novel was my first exposure to Zettel’s writing; I bought it because the premise sounded interesting and because I’m interested in reading more SF/space opera from female authors. And it turned out to be a solid, engaging hard-SF novel whose approach and values were similar to my own in some ways.
Fool’s War is set in a starfaring human civilization over 500 years in the future. There’s FTL travel and communication, called “fast-time” and never really explained, but otherwise the treatment of physics and engineering in spaceships and space habitats is very realistic (for instance, there’s no artificial gravity). There are no aliens, but there are artificial intelligences which occasionally become fully sentient, their birth pangs wreaking havoc in the highly computerized, networked human civilization of the novel. The interstellar community is held together, not by a government, but by the banking network that manages all transactions. (However, this is not a work of libertarian SF, refreshingly enough; one of the main characters comes from a libertarian sort of society and scathingly indicts the brutal anarchy he grew up in.) And to a large extent, the peace is kept by the Fools’ Guild. These are Fools in the Shakespearean sense (there are numerous references to the Bard herein, with a lot of the action taking place among the Shakespearean-named moons of Uranus), professional jesters who serve as social release valves and easers of tensions. The story focuses on the packet ship Pasadena, whose crewmembers come from a variety of different cultures with sharply conflicting values. The co-owner and engineer of the ship, Katmer Al Shei, is a devout, veiled Turkish Muslim woman in a future where anti-Muslim bigotry has become far worse than it is even today (startling that this was written before 9/11/01). The pilot is a Freer, a member of a habitat-dwelling society that reveres sentient AIs, believing they have captured and effectively reincarnated the souls of dead humans. Whereas the communications officer (a position cleverly labelled the “Houston”) is a survivor of a disaster wrought when his colony’s AI became sentient, and is fanatically, paranoiacally anti-AI. And the ship’s co-owner, who timeshares it with Al Shei on alternating missions, may have left some dangerous contraband onboard. So tensions are high in this enclosed environment, and ship’s Fool Evelyn Dobbs has her work cut out for her, using comedy and wit to entertain and calm the crew so the ship can run smoothly. It’s a charming notion, and Dobbs’s presence makes the book quite entertaining — at least in the first half, before things end up becoming deeply serious and increasingly dark.
But the Fools have a deeper goal, a secret mission to keep the peace on a far more sweeping scale, and there are others with a conflicting agenda that may destroy that peace once and for all. I don’t want to go into specifics, because it turns out that Dobbs has her own deep dark secret that is very deftly concealed. I absolutely did not see it coming, even though I was given clues, things I was shown and allowed to interpret through my own preconceptions, leading me to the wrong conclusions. It’s a deft bit of misdirection, befitting characters like Dobbs and her fellow Fools.
Perhaps reflecting its origins in the ’90s, there’s a lot of cyberpunkish stuff, characters diving around through cyberspace, and a lot of the descriptions of how that happens feel rather fanciful to me, though perhaps they’re just metaphors for otherwise incomprehensible processes and program interactions inside a computer network. Still, this is the first SF work I’ve ever seen or read that actually offered a plausible justification for the premise of the mind “leaving” the body upon diving into cyberspace, and being potentially in danger of bodily death if something goes wrong.
So this is the kind of story I like, both to read and to write. A hard-SF setting, richly textured worldbuilding, a witty central character with depth, a celebration of multiculturalism, a message against intolerance, and — I felt — an ultimately positive, optimistic tone, even though some very dark and awful things happen (or have happened in the characters’ pasts). It’s one of my most satisfying impulse buys in recent memory, and I’m definitely going to be checking out more of Zettel’s SF (though I see she also writes fantasy and paranormal romance — making it doubly cool that there’s so much hard science in her SF).