Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Review of The Tear by Ian McDonald

There are rumors going around that the current wave of science fiction will be called the Accelerated Age.  When the official announcement is made (most certainly not happening until we reach the trough of the next wave—coming sooner than you may think), undoubtedly pundits will be racing to find exemplary texts.  While not seminal, Ian McDonald’s 2008 novella The Tear is unequivocally a representative text,  Playing with reality in a way only writers of the astronomic surreal are seemingly able to, it is post-human to the mimetic limit.

Ptey is a young man growing up on the water world of Tej.  Brought to the Manor House to learn the ways of his seven other personalities, he is also taught the interstellar situation his home planet finds itself in.  A Second-Level species living in space overhead, the Andreen’s use Tej’s vast oceans to resupply water they use for intergalactic, faster-than-light travel.  More advanced than Ptey’s people, it’s a lucky chance that gets him aboard one of their water-sucking globes.  It’s unlucky, however, that he’s on board at the time when an enemy chooses to attack.

The most wildly speculative of McDonald’s stories I’ve yet to read, the developing countries motif is abandoned in favor of something wholly trans-human.  Ptey going through eight iterations of himself on Tej, once in space he finds infinity is not enough to define and name who he is.  The novella ending on a brain-busting, world-in-the-palm-of-your-hand note, McDonald once again proves he’s one of the most imaginative and under appreciated writers of sci-fi today.

Advancing by leaps and bounds, Ptey’s march through the phases of existence is exhilarating.  Similar to the works of Charles Stross, The Tear linearly accelerates Ptey like a particle into the stratosphere of metaphysics. The main storyline working like an escalator, it isn’t until the final fifteen pages that McDonald eases back on the throttle, re-contextualizing Ptey’s existence in human terms.  The mind ready to burst with the size and implications of it all, McDonald then wields a pin, popping the balloon by taking the scope of the story to unfathomable dimensions—Singularity like I’ve never read before.

All this being said, the science underpinning this acceleration is all too easily identifiable as pseudo-science.  Iain Banks did a lot of authorial hand-waving in Excession to create the illusion of future tech—and most felt at least plausible.  Reality spun with neologisms born of science and scientific speculation, not to mention just pure individual creativity, McDonald falls just shy of the mark.  More often crammed rather than spun, there is a palpably artificial feel to the descriptions of futuristic tech in the novella.  McDonald does, however, keep himself above the crowd, what’s presented solid in its own right.

Where The Tear falls short is in comparison to McDonald’s oeuvre.  The writing choppy, it would seem either he fired the story off in a blazing hurry, or it did not seem to have his full attention from the beginning.  Text like the following is par for the course:

“Past shuttered cafes and closed-up stores and the tall brick faces of the student Hearths. The burning tram on the Tunday Avenue junction blazed fitfully, its bitter smoke mingling with the eternal aromatic hydrocarbon smog exhaled by Jann's power plants. The trees that lined the avenue's centerstrip were folded down into tight fists, dreaming of summer. Their boot heels rang loud on the street tiles.”

As one can see, the pieces are there, just not organized into a single, fluid line that evokes singular imagery as strongly as his other works.  Sentence structure simply does not move with McDonald’s usual sense of rhythm and flow, resulting in an unpolished feel. 

In the end, The Tear is an exceptional example of a Singularity text but only a second-rate example of what McDonald can produce.  The sci-fi sense of wonder fully in place—a difficult feat to pull off in today’s age, the story rockets out of the stratosphere, and by the end, the logosphere.  For those who read sci-fi to expand their mind, this is an exemplary story.

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