(Explanatory note: this is the first review in my ‘XX Hard SF Reading Challenge‘, a personal survey of hard SF books by women. The intention here is not so much to address the by-now-very-tired question ‘can women write hard SF?’—clearly they can—nor even the only-marginally-less-tired question ‘do women write hard SF?’—clearly some do—but rather to see what they’re writing. And, perhaps, in some small way, to provide a resource on female authorship of hard SF, for readers who might be seeking such books. My survey is likely not to be comprehensive—I’m only committing to five books this year, though hopefully I may manage a few more than that—but, well, we’ll see how it goes.)
Catherine Asaro’s Wikipedia page lists a formidable range of accomplishments. She has a doctorate in chemical physics, is a visiting professor at the University of Maryland, and teaches chemistry, physics and maths at various levels. (Her science pedigree is impressive: she’s published papers with Alex Dalgarno, and her father appears to have had something to do with the dinosaurs’ extinction.) She’s also performed as a ballet and jazz dancer, has served as an artistic director for two dance companies, and has collaborated (both as a lyricist and as a performer) with the rock group Point Valid on a science fiction / music project. She’s a past president of SFWA … and the author of a large number of SF novels, novellas, and collections. (I stopped counting at around two dozen.) She’s had numerous award nominations and wins, including Nebula awards for her novel The Quantum Rose (2001) and her novella The Space-Time Pool (2008). Much of her SF qualifies as hard SF, and some even has diagrams.
As it turns out, my selected review book, Primary Inversion, contains neither diagrams nor formulae. It’s Asaro’s first published novel, dating from 1995, and is one of a large number in her ‘Saga of the Skolian Empire’ (although it doesn’t technically mark the beginning of the Saga, since some subsequently-published books deal with preceding events. The Wikipedia page has a helpful flow diagram, to assist with following the timeline).
At the start of Primary Inversion, Sauscony Valdoria (‘Soz’) is on rec leave with her team—the combat-hardened Rex and Helda, and the new recruit Taas—on the ‘Allied’ (neutral-zone) planet of Delos. Sauscony is a Jagernaut, an elite FTL fighter pilot equipped with all manner of biomechanical enhancements designed to allow her to control her spacecraft by thought. The Jagernaut corps, though small in number, are an essential component in the armoury of the Skolian Empire, an interstellar empire in a constant state of war with the much larger and ruthless Trader empire: the Jagernauts’ unique ability to communicate instantly across multiple-light-year distances, using a network created and maintained through psionics and quantum entanglement, is pretty much all that stands in the way of the Traders’ plans for Galactic domination. It’s an uneasy balance, one which has been maintained for generations, but, clearly, something’s going to give, sooner or later. After tangling with a Trader team on Delos, Soz and her team make an unwelcome discovery on Delos, leading them to suspect that ‘sooner’ might well be on the cards. Specifically, they learn that Ur Qox, the arrogant and bloodthirsty Aristo emperor who heads the Traders’ ruling Highton caste, has a secret heir: the charismatic Jaibriol, who holds a secret of his own, one as likely to destroy him as it is to lead to the Skolian Empire’s downfall. Sauscony, no stranger to unpredictable and rapidly-developing situations, suddenly finds herself playing for very high stakes indeed.
The speculative component of Primary Inversion is substantial, and quite heady. Faster-than-light travel, telepathy, instantaneous communication, and quantum creation of matter/antimatter from the vacuum of interstellar space: as a combination, it threatens to become topheavy, particularly viewed alongside a plot which merges elements of hard SF, mil-SF/space opera, dynastic fantasy, superhero/supervillain wish-fulfilment fiction, and romance. In places, I felt like some of the scaffolding was visible showing through (early on, there’s at least one out-and-out example of infodump-disguised-as-dialogue), and there were places, also, where I felt the interpersonal dynamics didn’t entirely ring true. But it should be remembered that this is Asaro’s first novel, and while there were some things which grated for me, there were also several strengths. The story makes good use of situational humour; the more extravagant science aspects are justified with plausible (and generally acceptably brief) explanatory paragraphs; there’s an astonishingly-choreographed near-lightspeed space battle; and there’s some genuinely moving emotional shading to several of the character interactions. (Against this, there are times when the book seems quite chimeric, with Soz on occasion displaying the kind of carelessness that sees people in horror movies walk along pitch-dark floorboard-creaking passageways while creepy music plays.) But if you can forgive the story some patchiness (and let’s face it, hard SF and romance is a difficult trick to pull off), there’s a lot to recommend Primary Inversion—and there’d be every reason to expect that Asaro’s later fiction manages to avoid most of the (minor) potholes suggested above. Plus, for all that a full character description of Soz (which I’m not offering here, because spoilers) would make her sound highly Mary-Sue-ish, she’s given sufficient depth to be genuinely engaging, and enough vulnerability and ambivalence to remain believable, despite her credentials. For that reason, I think I owe it to myself to check out some more of Asaro’s writing.
How would I assess Primary Inversion as hard SF, rather than simply as ‘general’ SF? Hmm … I’m not completely comfortable with the psionic aspects of the story, which while necessary and integral to the plot didn’t always feel natural or consistent to me. In this respect, I sometimes found suspension of disbelief to be a struggle, and I suspect hard-SF purists (among whose number I do not count myself) would likely have greater problems with it. But Asaro always makes an effort to justify her extrapolations, and in that respect the story certainly plays fair by the rules of hard SF, in spirit at least. And her FTL gimmick is brilliantly imaginative—and followed through with a storyline which treats it as more than a gimmick, with some genuine speculation on the ramifications of such technology for travel, warfare, and civilisation. (I should note here, also, that Asaro has authored academic papers on such FTL possibilities.)
Overall? It’s a busy book, well-paced, keenly imagined … kaleiodoscopic at times. (Remember, it blends hard SF, romance, and themes from dynastic fantasy. ‘Kaleidoscopic’ pretty much goes with the territory.) If that sounds like it might be your cup of tea, then yes, it probably is.
(Review by Simon Petrie, July 2013)