#CBR4 Maneuver #42 – Metaplanetary

Target: Tony Daniel’s Metaplanetary

Profile: Science Fiction, Science Fantasy

Summary: Taken from goodreads.com, “The human race has extended itself into the far reaches of our solar system — and, in doing so, has developed into something remarkable. The inner system of the Met — with its worlds connected by a vast living network of cables — is supported by the repression and enslavement of humanity’s progeny, nanotechnological artificial intelligences whom the tyrant Amés has declared non-human.

But the longing for freedom cannot be denied. And now a line has been drawn at Neptune’s moon Triton, where those who oppose Amés and his fearsome minions await the foretold return of a mysterious man of destiny and doom who has vanished into the backwater of the Met. But resistance will only ensure the unspeakable onslaught of the dictator’s wrath — a rage that will soon ravage the solar system and plunge all of humankind into the fury of total war.”

After Action Report:

Metaplanetary and I have a bit of an odd history.  I picked up a copy of the paperback in a tiny bookstore in Acadia National Park back in 2002.  After reading the whole thing in basically two days, I desperately wanted to find the sequel, with the rear cover promised had come out already.  Of course it hadn’t and it would be another there years before Superluminal would see the light of day, and in the meantime I forgot about the whole thing.  Going back to Metaplanetary hasn’t quite lived up to my expectations, but the book is still a solid piece of soft science fiction/science fantasy with one of the most interesting core concepts I’ve come across.

Metaplanetary attempts to be told as a pseudo-scholarly war record assembled by an off-screen narrator.  The chapters progress through the events leading up to a war between the Inner and Outer solar system regions, with each chapter containing the personal recollections of various involved individuals.  These narratives are punctuated by scholarly documents attributed to various in-universe authors, describing the history, politics and technology of the setting.

There are too many narrating characters to summarize here, but the general shape of the story is that of a dictator, Amés, seizing control of the Met or Inner solar system through charisma and a vision of a greater human race.  Amés’ true goal is a literal interpretation of Human Instrumentality, reducing the entire human race to instruments that he can then play.  But the increasing population of the Met who lack a physical Aspect, the Free-Converts, are inadvertently preventing Amés from realizing his goals, so he starts rounding them up and dumping them into digital concentration camps.  This breach of basic human rights riles up the Outer System governments and sets the stage for a system-wide war.

At the core of Metaplanetary’s appeal is the concept of ‘the Met.’  Rather than try to colonize planets, the humans of this future chose to inhabit the spaces between worlds by using a kind of elaborate space elevator.  The advent of quantum computing nanotech, called Grist, allowed humanity to spin a web of flexible but functionally unbreakable cables between the inner planets, which were then expanded to allow habitation.  There’s a lot of technobabble silliness involved in this explanation, and the whole concept seems a little under-thought, (whatcha gonna do about cables going through the sun?) but it is an interesting version of space expansion, and one that certainly has some merit on the small scale.  Daniel also opts to have his future not terraform the inner planets, and instead use advanced nanotech to bioform humans to live in the extreme environments of Venus and Mercury, as well as naked vacuum.  It’s a fascinating approach which conserves resources, as long as you assume that people only get adapted to their home planets.

Daniel does have a lot going for him in the creative science department, but he also commits some rather egregious crimes against common sensibility.  While his explanation for the detection of Gravitons is both interesting and slightly plausible, his description of those elementary particles as both sentient and actively opposed to entropy shoves the whole novel off the hard science cliff and into the murky waters of science fantasy.  His descriptions of AIs and quantum computing are also somewhat suspect.  To his credit, he does reference some of the fundamental experiments that helped establish quantum mechanics and uses them correctly, or close enough not to matter.

Moving back to the narrative, I think there are a few too many characters floating around for the story to really get moving.  A lot of time is spent with a typical family on Mercury to establish some of the socio-political aspects of Met life, but then Daniel pushes too far and starts making the 11-year-old daughter into an ad hoc freedom fighter.  The book also seems to single a character named TB out as the core protagonist, but then he gets knocked unconscious about a third of the way in and we almost never hear from him again.  Some of this is meant to be picked up in the sequel, but it still comes off as sloppy.

The action sequences are handled well, except for some minor unrealistic space combat elements.  The book also seems to be assuming that the outer planets are in near-perfect alignment, which doesn’t really happen that often, but there’s no other explanation for the utter disregard for travel times.  And when the second book explicitly establishes the non-existence of superluminal travel, all of Metaplanetary’s time tables start to break down a bit.

In spite of my nit-picking, I really do recommend Metaplanetary as a stand-alone novel.  Yes, you’re going to have some loose ends because of the sequel lead-in cliffhanger, but as you’ll see when I get to my review of Superluminal next week, you’re really better off just making up your own ending.  Just ooh and aah at the interesting concepts and try to enjoy the ride.

Posted on November 24, 2012, in Cannonball Reviews and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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