Monday, August 18, 2014

Review of Saturn Returns by Sean Williams

What if you took the scope and style of Alastair Reynolds Revelation Space and softened it with the somber, more humanist approach of Iain Banks’ Culture series?  While the prediction of offspring is certainly a crapshoot given the how chance is inherent to reproduction (an anomaly or two certainly arising), the majority of the litter would, however, appear as Sean Williams’ Saturn Returns.

Full on space opera, Saturn Returns is the stage-setting for a three book series called Astropolis.  The first chapter brilliantly depicting a confused awakening, the novel quickly thereafter quickly expands to galactic proportions, the full compliment of universe building tools employed.  Not a return to the Golden Age, Williams’ post-singularity vision of humanity populating known space is dynamic yet regulated.  From gestalt minds (massive AIs) to Primes (humans still in their original form), Frags (pieces of group minds) to Singletons (a copy of a Prime), the state of biological life on Earth is a distant memory.  Factions and empires forming (as in any space opera), a war broke out, called the Mad Wave, pitting one faction of humans against another.  The history of how the dust settled after spotty, the story opens in a distant quadrant of the galaxy with another wave, the Slow Wave, creeping in.

Awakening in the ship of a group mind called the Jinc, Imre Bergamasc (Banks-ian name, no?) finds himself clearing cobwebs from his brain.  Trying to get his bearings, he discovers he is also now in a woman’s body.  Talking with the mouthpieces of the Jinc, Imre learns that his consciousness was discovered lining the insides of a large metal drum far, far from the galactic center, and that an attack on the drum destroyed parts of it, in turn rendering portions of his memory inaccessible in his new body.  The Jinc often ambivalent in their answers to his questions, things become clearer when a mercurial sphere in the ship’s museum offers him the truth, or at least what is purported as.  Conflicted, Imre follows his heart and takes action.  The road thereafter taking him to lost memories and friends of old, problem is, some would have been better served left in the past.

Though Saturn Returns is unequivocally a work of space opera, Williams locates the story in Imre’s perspective throughout.  His existence fractal enough, there are not multiple viewpoints like Reynolds’ Revelation Space or Dan Simmons’ Hyperion.  Toeing the line between transparency and mystery, Williams plays out the line of Imre’s history one scene at a time through the characters he meets and the knowledge they possess, keeping his story character focused on the present, letting their histories fill in the universe.

Problem is, the universe building is wadded onto the bits of dialogue between these characters. Conversation operating as grounds for info dumping rather than real human interaction, the crew that assembles around Imre serve are historians rather than ‘old buddies’ from a plot perspective.  The informational content so heavy, in fact, I’ve come to see the novel as truly a stage setting for later stories in the Astropolis universe, rather than plot-centric space opera.  The actual events that transpire in the main storyline capable of being described in a briefer volume, lovers of such epic science fiction will revel in Williams’ creation, particularly for the level of detail and scope, the personal to galactic empire.

In the end, Saturn Returns is science fiction for the contemporary market.  From the gray characterization to the significant effort in detailing a post-singularity universe, readers in that niche of genre will melt into the book.  It has the breadth of Reynolds’ science fictional universe and the bleak isolation of Banks’ space narratives.  This is certainly not to say Williams is a copycat; he is not.  Only that the story fits very comfortably into that sub-genre and would be a great place to start looking into the oeuvre of Australia’s most prolific science fiction writer.