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Undertow by Elizabeth Bear

I’m not sure I would have loved Elizabeth Bear’s Undertow quite as much as I did if it were not for André Deschénez, who rules the opening paragraphs, along with the planet – Greene’s World – he inhabits. (Someone help me, I am sure I am using that verb incorrectly.) Andre is a preemptive, overwhelming response to Laura Miller’s first piece of advice: He wants, very badly, to be a “conjurer”. Currently, he is an assassin. (There is a part of me that still wishes that we got a heart-wrenching tale of the bad man who kills people who turns a new leaf and proceeds to entertain small children by pulling rabbits and doves out of hats. Alas, Andre wants more esoteric stuff.) While there are other characters in Undertow, some as or maybe even more compelling, some with agendas or their own, André’s want is the most convincing thing this story has given me. (It’s been months since I read this novel, and the scenes that stay with me are Andre’s and another’s, whom I’ll get to in a bit. This review is taking forever to get to the point, isn’t it?)

While he’s not running around killing people and trying to learn to be a Conjurer, André is Cricket’s lover. Cricket is an archinformist, which basically is exactly what it sounds like. Cricket, in her own turn, is at the initial stages of what might turn out to be a rewarding, long-lasting relationship with Jean-Gris and Lucienne – and they are working for the rights of Ranid, who are the native inhabitants of the planet these people all live on – corporate imperialist efficiency at its heartless, soulless best treats the native people – who look like frogs, and so are called, however lovingly or derogatorily (guess!) “froggies”.

André receives a commission to kill Lucienne. He does. Cricket does not take this well, and a lot of time is spent through the novel worrying about Andre’s degree of redeemability. (It’s his job, come on.) Unfortunately, I like André and so these moments are the ones where I flag and get irritated. While André struggles with issues of trust with Cricket and Jean-Gris (who, coincidentally, is a Conjurer, one of the best, and maybe he’ll give André what he wants, and maybe he won’t), Cricket must work with the last cache of information Lucienne sent her. (This entire planet has something like the Internet on Brain Steroids. It’s cool, but it gives Cricket a particular sort of distance which her character, given its crazy, pseudoscientific [or maybe not so pseudo] unfolding arc, would have developed anyway.)

In the meanwhile, Gourami, a Ranid who works for the human corporate overseers of Greene’s World, makes a potentially embarrassing discovery. Se (gender-neutral) is injured, endangered, on the run. So very much hangs around Gourami’s existence (as opposed to Lucienne’s non-existence) that it’s easy to see her as the focal point of the novel. Hir perspective is startlingly clear, and quietly emotional. Through Gourami we see more of the sociopolitical realities of Greene’s world than Cricket or André can outragedly shout at us.

This is a very tactile narrative, whether the Point-of-view narrator of the moment is Human or Ranid. In a story whose local plot is at least three-fourth alien, this is a very good tactic, making the R factually, sensorial alien, as opposed to simply visually and sensationally.

A lot of the future!science involves some very slick working around Quantum theory – and raises a question I have about that poor Cat. It involves some pseudoscientific power – it’s fantasy, masquerading as science, to me (just like Star Wars! Only I dislike Star Wars). Anyway, everyone runs around like chickens with their heads cut off, or like R versions of the same (it is hard to be nasty about a race of story tellers, especially xxxx [plot device I won't reveal] story-tellers), and the climax is an insane explosion of information, pseudo science and possibility.

So what do we have? Pseudoscience, a beautifully described, near-convincing alien race, at least two fascinating characters who keep the novel moving, a labyrinthine, Machiavellian plotline that I could not reduce down for the sake of this review, a mostly satisfactory ending, with potential for sequels. I liked it, quite a bit. If it’s around, and you have the time, you should try it.


Camilla,  09.03.10 19:26

I read "Andre is a Cricket lover", and I thought "how wonderfully surreal to be a wannabe conjurer assassin who loves cricket". I am a little disappointed now.

Now, I don't have time, so I won't read it right this minute. But I promise that if I end up jobless, friendless and alone after I finish my degree, I will take the time.

I find I wonder whether the connection Ranid-frog is something that is available in the English language. I know the Spanish for frog is "rana", so I instandtly make the connection. I suppose it is a Latin link (like feline or canine?) or some such. Could Ranid simply be Latin for "frog-like"? I am too lazy to look it up.

Roh,  10.03.10 05:00

It probably is. The Ranid are not a race that formulate sounds as humans do. I can't remember right now, but there's nothing in my notes to indicate that they called themselves that.