I haven't reviewed a Steven Barnes novel in three months, not through choice but because I struggled to get hold of the next one, 'Far Beyond the Stars'. Then I realised that, given that it's a tie-in novel to the 'Star Trek: Deep Space Nine' universe and as I've never watched that show, it wouldn't seem to be the most ideal choice, so I eventually gave up and moved on to the next one again, 'Saturn's Race', a fresh collaboration with Larry Niven, his sixth in fifteen books and his eighth if you count the two with Jerry Pournelle, as well.
I think I've read enough of these now to tell where the line between each of the authors fell. This feels like a solo Barnes novel, from the story perspective, but one that's set against a background that had a lot of Niven's input. While it seems to be a standalone novel, there's a small detail late in the novel that highlights that it's set in the same universe as everything else Barnes wrote with Niven: each of the 'Dream Park' novels, 'The Descent of Anansi' and presumably 'Achilles' Choice' too.
Are the ruling elite here the ruling elite there? I can't remember enough detail from 'Achilles' Choice' to say, but it's extra hard to tell because the angle to the story is utterly different: each of the 'Dream Park' books mixes intrigue with LARPs, 'The Descent of Anansi' with space opera and 'Achilles' Choice' with sports. Here, the intrigue is the focus, more so than it's been in those other books, but it's mixed with genetic engineering and augmentation technology, as epitomised by the shark in the front cover art who has arms.
The background setting becomes truly global, but it's focused on Xanadu, one of the floating cities in the Bay of Bengal. These are large installations independent of the countries around them that have pioneering technology at their hearts. Xanadu is home to sixty-thousand people, mostly scientists and polymaths, who are free to pursue experiments outside the boundaries of what most countries would deem appropriate.
There's a lot of good done here. Environmentally, Xanadu generates its power through a real process called OTEC, or ocean thermal energy conversion, and it claims to be the best place on the planet for respect to the environment. Medically, it's created vaccines and antidotes that are distributed all over the globe. There are also rejuvenation therapies so successful that they have to hide them from the public. The augmentation tech, bringing intelligence to animals like dolphins and sharks, seems to have value both in treatment of degenerative diseases like Alzheimer's and in researching potential first contact scenarios. Everything is curvy and organic and cutting edge.
Of course, there's a dark side and it turns out to be a really serious one. How we find out about that is through the character we initially believe to be the lead, Lenore Myles. She's an American student, on Xanadu for commencement, but really to meet Chaz Kato, whose foundation has sponsored her study for years, as he wants to hire her to work on Xanadu. Beyond the slightly creepy obsession factor here that's out of tone with the rest of the book, the two hit it off and things look promising, at least until Kato gives Myles access she shouldn't have and she stumbles onto a conversation that prompts some research and, next thing we know, the mysterious Saturn is trying to kill her.
Kato manages to keep her alive and he stabilises the situation by completely hiding the two days she was on Xanadu from her memory, but we're set for what we assume is the race of the title, with Kato on one side and Saturn on the other and, surely, Lenore rejoining the fray at some point. Well, this is pretty capable at subverting our expectations and we shift to Kato being the lead and Lenore almost an afterthought. She's gone for a long while and some of Kato's back story, which I won't spoil, drags a great deal. Eventually though, she's back, and her ex-boyfriend with her. That's Levar Rusche, who's a wanted man: a bioterrorist responsible for a major atrocity in Antarctica.
Some of this book is really successful. In a world only just catching up to the idea that diversity is both important and fascinating, this book is massively multicultural from moment one and it turns twenty-one years old this year. Even though Kato's full name, Chadwick Kato III, seems textbook WASP, he's a Japanese lead character and the others we meet quickly are from every ethnicity under the sun. The most important, given where the story goes, is Clarice Maibang, born to a primitive Indonesian tribe who play a major part in the story. I was actually surprised when it's let slip two-thirds of the way into the novel that Lenore is Caucasian.
Less successful but still fascinating is the use of metaphors as a means of navigating information. The desktop is a metaphor, so why not extrapolate that further. I don't think it works as a general idea, but Kato needs to find a way to figure out who Saturn is without being noticed and he does that through a Nero Wolfe game (well, Lupus Nero) that's run on new tech inside an antique Apple Mac, triggered by reaching a particular score in Pong. Once inside, Nero is a sort of AI character that nobody else knows exists, able to crunch the numbers and respond to Kato bouncing ideas off him.
I also really dug the augmented creatures that the Xanadu geneticists are working with. Barrister is the shark with arms, a name I particularly appreciated, but there are squarks toosharks with squid tentaclesand talking dolphins and the like. It isn't just the scientists who interact with them either, as there's a troop of Sea Scouts who prove to be admirably level-headed in a crisis. These creatures do play a major part in the story, but I wanted a lot more of them than the authors were willing to give.
Moving down the scale, I wasn't as engaged with the characters as I ought to have been. Part of that is probably because of the romantic angles shoehorned into the story; with perhaps one exception, they don't seem necessary and they devalue the characters by making them seem more constructed than grown. I can't say I didn't like them, but who they are and what they do is more important to the story than it is to us and all they'd be pretty uninteresting if that story hadn't shown up.
And so this ended up a mixed bag for me. It's rich and dense worldbuilding with fascinating backdrops and less fascinating characters, but it's also less of a science fiction novel and more of a thriller based in cutting edge science. Given where he was going with his solo novels at this point in his career, books like 'Blood Brothers' and 'Iron Shadows', and where would go nextwith his next like 'Charisma', 'Lion's Blood' and 'Zulu Heart', it seems that he was becoming less interested in science fiction and more in a combination of action and history, with any science fiction edge gradually vanishing. I'm enjoying the journey and it explains why Barnes didn't collaborate on another novel with Niven for almost a dozen years, until they teamed up again for a fourth 'Dream Park' book in 2011. ~~ Hal C F Astell
For more titles by Larry Niven click here
For more titles by Steven Barnes click here