Monday, June 22, 2015

Belt Three - John Ayliff

Belt Three is an intriguing and intense sci-fi novel. It picks up some good ideas and runs with core, it has some complex feeling characters, in a well-developed world, though it would have been nice to see more of both.

The setting is one of the central pillars of any text – and here, the reader feels that perhaps more than usual. The universe the characters inhabit is one set after the end of the world – literally. Mysterious entities, known as the Worldbreakers, have devastated our solar system, slowly grinding the habitable planets into belts of rock and dust. Centuries after this cataclysm, the Worldbreakers continue to grind down the remnants of human civilisation – and humanity has adapted their society to cope with the ever present possibility of extinction.

Some of these adaptations are plausible, interesting, and have a broad impact on the setting. For example, the creation of working cloning technology allows both an explanation of humanity’s survival, and an exploration of discrimination and social issues; the clones are treated appallingly in many cases, issued identifying numbers, and considered less than human. The author gives us an opportunity to see the social pressures that have led to this situation, and provides counter-examples, letting the reader see what other characters do not – that the clones are as human as the few “trueborn” who serve as the aristocracy. The text does also start to address the reasons for the current social configuration – there’s some wonderful dialogue later in the text which explores this. On the other hand, it feels like there’s  a lot more room here for further consideration of these issues, and it would have been good to see them examined further.

Similarly, the setting includes neural programming – individuals are able to write programs to their own minds, turning, for example, mild-mannered supervisors into deadly combatants. This is associated with the cloning mentioned above – clones can simply be mind-wiped, their personalities erased, left as husks with new skills implanted. The gruesome nature of this procedure, and its ramifications, are examined in the text – but again, it would have been fascinating to look at this in greater depth.

At any rate, the setting is full of interesting ideas, ones which it isn’t afraid to use to draw the reader in, and use in the purposes of the narrative. The universe, as a whole, feels like it’s lived in. It also feels remarkably unpleasant, almost hopeless, but that seems to be part of the theme of the text – the characters exist in an ever-tightening gyre, their society constantly inching toward ruin.

The reader can see some of that in the characters as well. The central relationship begins as one between a pirate and a hostage. The former, the author portrays as less brutal than callous; she’s more than happy to scrub the minds of a clone crew, but drawn to their new captain – though only as both a potential ransom and potential company. The author manages to portray a cold, driven individual in the narrative present, one determined to fight, both against the horrors of her past, and whose past forces her to keep fighting now, even when those fights seem hopeless. We’re also allowed glimpses into her back-story, via the memories of another individual, which allow us to see how the almost monstrous creature found at the start of the book has been shaped from some very different beginnings – and also what she’s looking for. The literary device used to do this is rather clever, and the arc for the character is both believable and compulsive reading.

The other half of this duo is her captive, who is something quite different. Initially both arrogant and terrified. Determined to preserve himself, and to escape. A man with none of the drive to fight that we see in his captor – but with a great talent for manipulation. A kind of wry cleverness which helps drive the story forward. He’s also struggling against his own secrets and inner demons, which are eked out more linearly across the text. Still, they do make for absorbing reading. Both characters are given room to grow and develop organically through the actions of the narrative, and are thoroughly enjoyable to read. That said, it would have been great to have seen more of them, been given just a little more insight into their inner workings, been given a slightly broader perspective on their journey outside the text. Still, the relationship between them is wonderfully done – the air fairly crackles around each line of dialogue.

The plot isn’t exactly straightforward, but it feels pared back to basic elements, means of pushing forward the characters who are the real focus of the text.  I won’t spoil it here, but I will say that the central thrust is the determination of both characters to change their universe – though in quite different ways. Really, it would have been great to have seen this in more depth – it felt like the book was over too quickly, which was a shame – it left me hungry for more.

Is it worth reading? If you’re looking for a post-apocalyptic science fiction universe, with some great character relationships, and some interesting musings on what makes us human, and how far we’re willing to go, both for ourselves and for others.

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