Wednesday, August 27, 2014

On the spaceship lollypop....

David Ramirez's debut novel, The Forever Watch, isn't nearly as dull as some of the reviews on goodreads would suggest. Really it's not. This is not to say it doesn't have issues, but....

The setup is fairly simple, grounded in some fairly common Science Fiction tropes. In the far flung future, the remnants of humanity are on a large space ship named Noah, traveling from a dead Earth to a new planet named Canaan. (Which I always read in the accent of an old teacher of mine from North Carolina. May she rest in peace.) The remnants live in a habitat dome designed to mimic Earth's climate and weather patterns, simulate seasons as well as create day and night. The society within is seen by most as almost utopian, despite strict rules and extreme censorship. (Seriously. This society has a type of caste system wherein everyone's placement within is based on testing scores.)

Humanity itself has evolved; humans now have access to different varieties of psychic powers, which in turn are augmented by implants, nanotech, and even wearable gauntlets that draw from the psionic power grid running Noah.

Our narrator, Hana Dempsey, who works in City Planning, wakens from a medical coma as part of her Breeding Duty. (Women with Breeding Duty get a 9 month paid vacation in a medical coma. It's mentioned men get off easy, spending a few minutes performing theirs.) She suffers from a bit of postpartum depression (the child is taken away to be raised by "Keepers" after birth), and spends time downloading memories off the Nth Web of people petting cats or breastfeeding to combat this. (One of the side effects of the neurological implants is that memories are recorded whole and are transferable between people.)

One of her friends, Leonard Barrens (alternately going by Barrens, Leon, or Leonard), is not in the same rarefied social strata that Hana occupies. He's a Bruiser, working in the cold case section of what amounts to a police force. (Security on all levels of the ship falls under the Ministry of Peace. Most of the Ministries on Noah echo Orwell.) Hana met Barrens during an attack on her by a Mission Critical engineer who was high on the drug Psyn. They've remained friends, despite the judgmental looks and comments from her more refined friends.

Barrens asks Hana for help with a programming issue. Namely, he found the mutilated body of a former supervisor, but the records indicate said supervisor went into Retirement. Also, Barrens seems to be the only one with a memory of the condition of the mutilated body. Hana creates a program that will try to find information regarding "Mincemeat", what the supervisor was researching before his murder. Mincemeat would appear to be a serial killer who mutilates his victims, and commits crimes that don't exist on official records.

As the book progresses, Barrens and Hana become lovers, and hook up with someone they find during their investigation. (In one of the biggest problems I had with the book, the passage of time is more than a little off. It's like someone presses a fast forward button to speed up progress between events.) Bullet, as he goes by, has the odd psychometry ability, where he can get memories off of objects by touching them. Which, as they find out chasing holes in the data, means Mincemeat has either been stalking the ship almost since it launched, or there have been multiple Mincemeats. Not long before Barrens leaves Hana to investigate without her (for fear of her safety, naturally), they find a memory floating around the fringe of the Web (the Nth Web has more servers than even Information Security even realizes) involving a race of aliens they think of as The Builders, who built Noah, and also don't appear in any of the censored histories any of the characters have access to. Before he leaves (about halfway through the book), he also gives Hana the code assigned her child.

From here, the book progresses in interesting tangents. At one point, Hana, worried that her detective work will lead to her being "Adjusted" by Information Security, becomes slightly paranoid. Which of course, means nothing when Barrens sends a summons telling her to flee, which of course leads her right into a group coming to collect her.

In quite possibly one of the dumbest moves I've seen by a heroine since Laurana flew to Kitiara in Dragons of the Spring Dawning, the lead Behaviorist pretty much lets Hana escape and get a new gauntlet. (Seriously, this has "TRAP!" written larger than coming out of hyperspace in front of a fully operational Death Star still shielded by the generator on the Forest moon of Endor.)

Barrens is now facilitating one unit of Archivists, who in this world are more or less the same folks that populate conspiracy websites. Problem of course being that there is an actual conspiracy, of which we, the readers gain access to as the book climbs towards the climax. Which is complicated, since Hana and Barrens become convinced that the conspiracy is in place for a reason, and disagree with the other cells of Archivists that releasing the information to everyone would be a great idea.


I disagree with Ramirez's conclusion that some information should be kept secret because the people might revolt if they knew the whole truth, much as I disagreed with Jack McDevitt and Mike Resnick about how humanity would react to the big secret at the end of their The Cassandra Project. While the secrets being kept from the "crew" of Noah aren't pleasant, the idea of laboring under false pretenses is one that annoys me. Particularly since we as readers get to know the secrets, unlike the majority of his characters. I will mitigate this by saying those who want to spread the information tend to be motivated by a mixture of "information must be free" attitudes combined with wanting the glory of being the ones to bring truth to the unwashed masses. That those folks are also manipulating the food supply doesn't exactly help bring any sympathy for them. Again, there really aren't any characters in this drama who are morally pure.  Hell, even the program that develops AI and passes the Turning test basically become a tool of the oppressors by the end.

It's an ugly book in places, and again, one that I don't particularly agree with the conclusions contained within. It's a bit like reading 1984, had Orwell been writing from the government's point of view, or more aptly, Rocky Horror Picture Show slanted to show Dr. Scott as the real hero of the piece.