#CBR4 Maneuver #19 – Mindstar Rising

Target: Peter F. Hamilton’s Mindstar Rising (The Mandel Files #1)

Profile: Speculative Fiction, Science Fiction, Mystery

Summary: From Goodreads.com, “Greg Mandel, late of the Mindstar Battalion, has been many things in his life. Commando. Freedom fighter. Assassin. Now he’s a freelance operative with a very special edge: telepathy.

In the high-tech, hard-edged world of computer crime, zero-gravity smuggling, and artificial intelligence, Greg Mandel is the man to call when things get rough. But when an elusive saboteur plagues a powerful organization known as Event Horizon, Mandel must cut his way through a maze of corporate intrigue and startling new scientific discoveries.

And nothing less than the future is at stake.”

After Action Report:

I haven’t read a lot of Peter F. Hamilton’s work.  He’s generally considered to be one of the better New Space Opera writers out of the U.K.  I enjoyed his Void trilogy when I read them in Cannonball 3, but they didn’t really inspire me to pick up the rest of his cannon.  Rather, it was my commentary on Space Operas itself that spurred me to check out both Hamilton and his contemporary, Ken MacLeod, in a little more depth; particularly their early novels, which I knew almost nothing about.

It is somewhat interesting that we segment out science fiction from regular fiction, when there is really no such thing as a ‘science fiction novel.’  More accurately, science fiction isn’t a real genre, just a setting in which other stories are told.  Mindstar Rising is very much a detective/mystery novel that utilizes a semi-apocalyptic future earth to create unique conflicts.  In the wake of global warming induced ecological collapse and multiple wars, the communist leadership of England is forced from power and the monarchy reinstated.  The country is in shambles and its revitalization lies almost entirely in the hands of the megacorporation Event Horizon and its ailing chairman, Philip Evans.  The company was one of the critical factors in the downfall of the communist regime, and has taken it upon itself to rebuild Great Britain’s failing infrastructure.

So when Event Horizon starts hemorrhaging money to an internal conspiracy, of course they’d call in the best detective available, Greg Mandel, a former psychic soldier turned detective.  A human lie detector.  Of course there’s more going on than at first glance and Greg finds himself increasingly enveloped in a web of politics, corporate greed and simple jealousy.

Without giving too much more away, the mystery story is quite well done.  The big reveals are handled well and all the players are adequately characterized.  The science fiction elements are mostly well integrated, aside from the wacky psychic Mindstar glands that secrete ‘neurohormones,’ which in turn enable psychic abilities.  It is a future that doesn’t feel so far off right now.  At the same time, there isn’t anything truly stand-out about Mindstar.  It doesn’t ask any questions that haven’t been considered already, and the use of communist-capitalist rhetoric clearly marks it as a product of the last century.

A piece of science fiction draws a great deal from the author’s experience of real world events.  It isn’t surprising that literature from the early 1990s would revolve around the ‘threat’ or collapse of communism.  At the same time, present day readers will find themselves removed from the plausible reality of the setting because we’ve moved past those threats and have started focusing on new ones.  Science fiction is only science fiction until we pass the timestamp of the story, at which point it’s just fiction.  While Mindstar still takes place in our relative future, we’ve removed ourselves from that particular set of possibilities, so the setting just isn’t as effective.

The only other complaint I’d like to voice concerns the character Julia Evans, Philip’s granddaughter and heir apparent.  Her portrayal is bizarrely sexualized, with her introduction featuring her peeping on the sexual antics of two of her friends.  This character trait occupies a shocking amount of Julia’s PoV chapters, and just seems to degrade an otherwise intelligent, cunning and charming character.  The trope becomes even creepier when she starts letting her grandfather’s personality ride around her in computer implants, allowing him to experience some or all of her senses.  I cannot, for the life of me, figure out what Hamilton was trying to do with these unsettling side moments, but they come off as sexist at best and downright misogynist at worst.

Still, the book is quite satisfactory and would probably make a great summer reading selection.  It won’t be the best thing you read, but you’ll probably still enjoy it.

Posted on June 18, 2012, in Cannonball Reviews and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. I’m sorry, dude, but you seem to have missed some rather pertinent details when it comes to this book. (Disclaimer : I love it)

    Communism isn’t a by-product of when it was written, it’s the basic ethos of the party (People’s Socialist Party, the PSP) that was elected to government when (it’s implied) the populace were tired of both ‘standard’ parties, and opted for that Third Way – which turned out to be a mistake. Discontent with both primary parties is where we’re at *right now* – who knows what might happen if a third party came around who looked like a better deal than the status quo? There’s lots of disenchanted voters out there looking for that third option.

    There’s no “threat of collapse of communism” – this is about a communist party in the UK, and the results thereof. The party came in at the worst time (with global warming etc.) and failed the country.

    And global warming is most *definitely* not something where “we’ve removed ourselves from those possibilities”. Mindstar portrays a country totally affected by warming, and paints some really interesting ideas and concepts onto that canvas.

    Finally, Julia Evans isn’t “bizarrely sexualised”, she’s a teenager / young adult whose only sexual experiences (at that time) have been 1) abused by the cultist in a commune, 2) raped by a power-hungry freak and 3) a neurotic twitchy boy at finishing school. She’s always been separate from her peers, both through upbringing, and then her adoption into Event Horizon, and her nodes. The episode you mention, spying on her friends, is her way of researching what she should be doing to get a boy. It’s no different, in that context, from any fairy story of princess finding a prince/partner.

    Indeed, half the story / plot points are based around her sexuality and trying to be “normal” – her attempts to look attractive to prospective boyfriend bring about disastrous/destructive results with [power-hungry freak], among others.

    I think you should perhaps re-read the book…

    • Well, I would never be so gauche as to suggest that you read my review again, but you seem to have missed a few things, first and foremost confusing my critique of the author with the critique of the book.

      To say that this novel wasn’t informed and shaped by the collapsing Soviet Bloc in the 1980 and 1990s is to do a great disservice to Hamilton. The ongoing tension of the Cold War was coming to an end and that collapse of communist power fueled a decade of science fiction ideas and sub-genres. You can’t just disregard these source materials as set dressing or random choice.

      The PSP may have been a “third party” but the fact that it was communist cannot be ignored. The government’s actions have a direct impact on the shape of the novel, placing a megacorporation into the role of revolutionary hero, examining the specific inabilities to deal with the climate change, even setting up the protagonist as a discarded military super soldier. Any other government type would have changed the way the world looked. For example, a totalitarian dictatorship would have embraced the use of super soldiers and worked hard to maintain infrastructure at the expense of food and resources for the populace.

      But this is far from the point. My criticism of the use of communism is rooted in the problem facing all near-future speculative fiction authors, that of relevance. As we advance towards the events predicted in science fiction novels, we are exposed to how real history has diverged from predicted history. This disjoints the reader’s suspension of disbelief, causing friction between the narrative elements and the reader’s perception of reality. The more realistic a subject, the more friction is created.

      Because we have more or less banished the fear of communist revolution, tea party nutters aside, the use of a communist political faction as an antagonist is less effective. This isn’t the fault of the author, or even the book, but of the inexorable march of time. You’ll notice that I never call the setting bad or poorly written. Just less effective than it would have been had I read it in the 1990s. The fact that you view communism as just a piece of exchangeable set dressing is actually indicative of this problem.

      Interestingly, I never included climate change as something that had phased out of our collective experience, so I don’t know where you got that…

      Finally, you are absolutely entitled to whatever opinions of sex you’d like to have. That being said, Julia’s sexuality has nothing to do with the major story arc, aside from her crush on Greg. It’s a series of unrelated scenes that do nothing to enhance the character, and make her come off as a fetishistic nymphomaniac. She, in the course of the book, manipulates her best friend into becoming the sex slave of the man who raped her and lets her father experience her senses during arousal. This portrayal undermines her status as a PoV protagonist, leading us to believe that she is, at best, a stupid, sex obsessed teenager who wouldn’t even be in the story if it weren’t for her implants, and at worst, a monstrous example of a sexual abuse victim in the process of becoming a serial abuser. Hamilton doesn’t do justice to his female cast and if you can’t see that, then take your opinions off my blog.

  2. re Climate change, accepted, I extrapolated from “At the same time, present day readers will find themselves removed from the plausible reality of the setting because we’ve moved past those threats and have started focusing on new ones. Science fiction is only science fiction until we pass the timestamp of the story, at which point it’s just fiction. While Mindstar still takes place in our relative future, we’ve removed ourselves from that particular set of possibilities, so the setting just isn’t as effective.” as meaning “the setting” rather than “the communist party aspect of the setting”.

    If that was wrong, mea culpa.

    In the context of the Mindstar books, I still find it feasible that a socialist party could come to power. If memory serves, we’re never told what they campaigned on, or how they gained power. As such, they could’ve made promises about rehoming those made homeless by rising floodwaters etc. (and thinking about it, that’s discussed, the use of holiday chalets as homes etc.) – a redistribution of wealth/property among the populace? I can see that happening in near-future – maybe not socialist per se, but the discontent between haves and have-nots is certainly there. And the mentions of “Austerity acts” doesn’t seem so far away from the current financial savings and situation in the EU either. Indeed, it’s quite interesting seeing how many of those pre-cursors *are* in place.

    As such, I don’t ignore the fact that communism/socialism was the policy of choice, and indeed I totally agree that it’s massively relevant to all aspects of the ongoing story.

    I do think, though, that there’s still the possibility of such a party coming to power – with a bit of revamping, a bit of blinkering of the overall aims/goals initially (and what party would do that in order to get elected? *cough* ) A kind of Communism 2.0, if you will.

    With regard to portrayal of Julia Evans, we’ll just have to agree to disagree, I think. Seems safest. 🙂

  3. I’m with Lyle – I don’t see the Socialist angle as dated at all. You’re certainly correct that the choice to make the PSP explicitly Socialist was born of political concerns at the time the book was written, it’s just that I think those concerns were forward-looking for their time and continue to be relevant today.

    The book was written in 1993, at a time when the Soviet Union was only two years in the grave, East Berlin still looked like a bombed out ruin, and Francis Fukuyama was loudly proclaiming that history was over and that liberal democracy would gradually take over the world. My memory of those times was that the idea of a communist comeback was laugh-out-loud funny. So, I thought the choice to make the PSP explicitly socialist was an interesting one precisely because it went so clearly AGAINST the assumptions that everyone was making about the future at the time. I always assumed that Hamilton’s point in taking that route was to warn against complacency. Just because communism per se was discredited was no reason to assume communist zombies couldn’t spring up from time to time and make life very unpleasant for an awful lot of people … is what I took to be the warning.

    I would say that recent events have somewhat vindicated Hamilton’s choice. You mention the Tea Party, but that’s actually the wrong place to look – Occupy Wall Street is the closer analogue. No, they don’t have a specific agenda. Yes, they tend to spout whatever disjointed garbage the agitator-of-the-day feeds them. But take a look at how much socialist stuff got fed to them from behind the scenes. Now, reflect that this is probably exactly the kind of crowd that would have brought a hypothetical PSP to power: a crowd of disaffected, vaguely left-wing youth with no clear agenda of their own, manipulated by Armstrong and the PSP into supporting a government more oppressive than the one they were originally complaining about. Now switch over to Spain and Greece, and you see it even sharper relief. Youth in those countries obviously have a lot more immediate problems than their American cousins, and blame for those problems is squarely placed at Capitalism’s feet. It’s true that Golden Dawn gets most of the foreign press to do with Greece, but the truth is that in both places (and especially Spain), it’s the far-left that is picking up the pieces. Couple that with people like Putin – an ex-KGB officer – coming to dominate Russia and announcing that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest human catastrophe in history, and I think anyone should start to see Hamilton’s point. The “capitalism-socialism stuff” is not exactly over, even if we still expect liberal democracy to win in the end, and reports of repressive socialism’s death were greatly exaggerated. Indeed, I think part of the commentary Hamilton is pushing is that, in spite of everything, Socialism is the greater danger than (Golden Dawn-style) fascism precisely because it can be couched in liberationist terms. Ask yourself which scenario seems more likely in Greece. That Golden Dawn forms an NSDAP-type minority government and manages to bully parliament into passing some enabling laws, or that Syriza does? My money’s on Syriza, and precisely because everyone is so focused on Golden Dawn as the greater of those two evils. Moreover, places like Greece are probably what Hamilton had in mind for the UK when he wrote the book. That is, I had the impression that the assumption he was working under was that the UK would continue to decline, and that its somewhat ambiguous relationship with Europe had a lot to do with whatever it was that brought the PSP to power. It’s debatable how right he got the UK angle, but I think the warning that countries on the periphery of trans-national organizations are susceptible to socialist takeovers is one that holds today – is indeed more realistic today than it was in 1993.

    I would have to read the book again to be able to say anything intelligent about Julia, but my impression at the time I read the book was similar to Lyle’s there too. I didn’t find it offensive or sexist. I can see your point that it doesn’t seem to have much to do with the story, but it did make Julia a more convincing character, I felt. Because of the abuse, she has some trouble relating to other people, and that makes her a convincing heir(ess) to the Event Horizon legacy – because she’s kind of cold, distant, inhuman to a degree. She needs to have a ruthless streak to work in this environment. Certainly Hamilton could’ve given her a ruthless streak some other way, but why ask him to when this one works?

    • Ah, so now we’ve moved on to calling communists Nazis. Wonderful. I invoke Godwin’s Law and scratch the entire comment thread. Any further argument isn’t going to be productive. The bizarre desire to vilify communism as a concept is as alive and well in 2012 as it was in 1993.

      But before I go, your Julia paragraph is disturbing. You appear to be arguing that being abused makes you a better business person because… being ruthless is a useful and desirable personality trait? That can’t be right. First, because its incredibly inappropriate and smacks of all that rape/misogyny bullshit that cropped up in the U.S. elections this year. Second, because it’s wrong. The book explicitly identifies Julia’s calculating streak as a byproduct of her computer implants, and evidences this by showing her almost immediate inability to cope when said implants are switched off. Hamilton did, in fact, give her that ruthless streak another way, and used it correctly in the context of the novel to alternately humanize and dehumanize the character. All of which could have been done without the sex/abuse subplots.

  1. Pingback: Fofo’s #CBR4 Review #19: Mindstar Rising by Peter F. Hamilton « Cannonball Read IV

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