Unity, Elly Bangs (Tachyon 978-1616963422, 304pp, $15.95) April 2021.
This debut novel by Elly Bangs rockets out of the starting gate with the high-powered energy of such nth-gen cyberpunk as Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon, before settling down towards its climax into a (comparatively) meditative ramble on identity, kinship, communication, and individual responsibility for the survival of the species. Along the way, there’s seldom a dull moment—although the success or failure of one certain authorial maneuver (a particular tactic I’ve often employed myself in my own fiction) could be the subject of aesthetic debate.
We open in the year 2159, at a time when the surface of the Earth has been ravaged by climate change and is an unstable wasteland, subject to super-storms and other phenomena. Most of the flourishing remnants of civilization are found in underwater arcologies of a sort. One such is Bloom City, run by a clan named the Medusas. Here live the three folks who will become central to our tale: a woman named Danae, who features a mysterious past—and a unique nanotech implant; her lover, a sensitive and resourceful man named Naoto; and a merc-for-hire named Alexei Standard.
Danae needs to exit Bloom City permanently for various reasons, including a mysterious reunion of sorts she must attend in Arizona. But the Medusas aren’t keen to have her leave and take her talents with her. So she hires Alexei to smuggle her out. Naoto, not initially intended to come along, nonetheless ends up accompanying Danae and the merc.
Their harrowing escape amidst the chaos of a Bloom City coup is a stirring setpiece of action, equivalent to a cinematic thriller. Once on land, among scavengers, warlords, and the dog-eat-dog civilians, their travails do not diminish. Think Zelazny’s Damnation Alley. Making their way laboriously across the wilderness, they eventually reach their goal, but only after immense troubles and sacrifices—and with the help of Alexei’s partner-in-crime Kat.
What we eventually learn—and I will strive not to spoil things—is that Danae is just one segment of a larger entity, a quasi-immortal being capable of “unity,” whose purpose in life is greater than simple personal fulfillment. Danae’s quest to reunite with this “Whole” becomes akin to a salmon swimming upstream to spawn.
That’s the big picture, the engine that drives the action, and it’s a sharp and intelligent usage of a good SF novum. I was reminded of Wesley Chu’s Tao series, and also Brian Aldiss’s mordant and funny classic, “Let’s Be Frank”. But along the way we also get deeply imagined and richly conveyed interactions between the lovers Danae and Naoto, and their growing relationship with the damaged soul that is Alexei. A big reveal at the end intimately linking Danae and Alexei’s past biographies is just the capstone to the more quotidian interactions. Additionally, the villains are gleefully wicked, especially Luther, a figure from Danae’s deep past who stalks her from Bloom City onward.
What’s the story-telling tactic I said might be debatable? Part Two of the tale ends on a major cliffhanger, in which the survival of our heroes is up in the air—almost literally. Part Three consists of some 70 pages of flashback—intriguing backstory, to be sure, but not advancing the realtime events—before Part Four picks up the “live” events. I understand this commonly shared authorial impulse—to prolong the suspense almost unbearably—but in this instance I found the detour a little frustrating. After all, Bangs had previously integrated lots of backstory more seamlessly into her forward action. Why not fold this stuff in the same way, and let the reader experience the continuous roller-coaster ride that characterizes such a thriller?
It’s curious that this book follows closely on Olivia Chadha’s Rise of the Red Hand, a cyberpunkish tale about a woman employee of an urban street gang in a post-collapse future, and her attempts to transcend her destiny. It must be “steam engine time” for such narratives, indicative of some set of societal trends circa 2021 that bloom into these specific objective correlatives. But whatever the zeitgeist origins of such scenarios, Bangs has given us a highly individual, nuanced, well-crafted adventure that packs in lots of provocative material relating to our essential aloneness even amidst our fellow millions.
“We created unity because we recognized that separate minds are fundamentally unable to understand one another. What they call communication is just a complex of flawed assumptions and mutual misunderstandings.”
There’s the existential canker that underpins all our contemporary malaise—and also fuels a writer’s desire to overcome it.
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