Book review: Spin State, by Chris Moriarty

3 08 2016

Chris Moriarty is an American SF writer who has worked as a horse trainer, tourism industry employee, and environmental lawyer. Spin State, her debut novel, was published in 2003, and has been followed by two sequels as well as two YA fantasy novels.


Spin State opens with a UN-sponsored covert ops raid, led by the genetically and cybernetically enhanced Major Catherine Li, on a clandestine geneware lab at Metz. But Li has not been fully briefed on the purpose of the raid, nor has anyone else physically participating in the action; the only one among them, it seems, who has access to all of the necessary intel is Cohen, the AI riding on a virtual shunt through an implant worn by Li’s comrade-in-arms Kolodny. The raid goes awry, Kolodny is killed, and Li, censured for her mishandling of a mission for which she felt she had never been given sufficient background information, is dispatched to the mines of Compson’s World to investigate the death of Hannah Sharifi, a worlds-renowned physicist, in a catastrophic mine explosion during an unsanctioned experiment. It’s soon revealed that Sharifi’s death was not accidental, but who is responsible? And, while Li antagonises everyone from Haas, the mine director, to General Helen Nguyen, her own superior officer, what other forces are at play in the dangerous game for which Compson’s World seems to have become a crucial gamepiece?

The hard SF background on which Spin State is constructed is that the phenomenon of quantum entanglement permits a technology enabling the effectively-instantaneous translocation of a privileged few (among whose number, by virtue of her hardware and wetware enhancements, is Li herself) across interstellar distances. This technology relies on continued access to crystalline Bose-Einstein condensate, a material found to be naturally occurring only in the subsurface of the heavily-mined Compson’s World. From this background, Moriarty has engineered an intricate, intriguing, and well-realised story that owes almost as much to cyberpunk and sociological SF as it does to hard SF. Everyone here—Haas, Nguyen, Sharifi, the mine witch Bella, the dealer in antiquities Korchow, the religionist Cartwright, and especially the fey brain-the-size-of-a-planet AI Cohen—has an agenda of their own, none of these agendas coalign precisely, and it becomes clear that Li will need an agenda of her own, which may or may not be to follow the orders to which, as a soldier, it has always been her duty to submit.

Spin State reads like a hybrid of Greg Egan’s weird-physics masterwork Schild’s Ladder and Richard Morgan’s neo-cyberpunk shooter Altered Carbon, told with the attention to worldbuilding detail of Nicola Griffith’s Ammonite. Which is another way of saying that it conveys its deep otherworldliness with sublime exactitude, while propelling the reader from one high-stakes confrontation to the next. It’s an excellent example of recent hard SF.

(This is the ninth in my ‘XX Hard SF’ series of reviews, on women writers of hard SF. For the purpose behind the series of reviews, see my posts here and here; for a listing of the books reviewed in this project, refer here.)




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