Spin State

by Chris Moriarty

Cover image

Series: Spin #1
Publisher: Bantam
Copyright: October 2003
Printing: December 2004
ISBN: 0-553-58624-6
Format: Mass market
Pages: 606

Buy at Powell's Books

Spin State starts out firmly in the hard SF, cyberpunk tradition. We have a hero with various cybernetic enhancements who is sent to hot spots via a space travel technology that causes damage to her memories. There's an AI. There are daring raids against black labs with a goal of getting close enough to closed computer systems to hack them. AIs can ride people, take over their bodies and sensoriums. And particularly at the start of the book, you have to beat off the technobabble and dense scientific language with a stick.

When the book turned into an engrossing novel about coal mining, I for one was quite surprised.

It's not, of course, coal mining as we know it, but it's remarkably close. After a fiasco of a mission, Li is sent to a mining world to investigate the death of Sharifi, a prominent physicist, in an explosion and fire that's still burning. The physicist was the inventor of the means for interstellar travel, and the mine is the one world found by humans that provides Bose-Einstein condensate, a magical material with a better-than-normal foundation in physics (although Moriarty postulates condensate that's stable at room temperature). In a twist of thematic convenience, Bose-Einstein condensate is found only in seams of coal.

Li's personal story is also entangled with Compson's World and Sharifi, and while her investigation follows police procedural lines on the surface, she has to come to terms with her own past as a child of miners. She also has to come to terms with her (and Sharifi's) origins as a genetically engineered person, something that she's kept partly secret. As one might expect, this all becomes directly relevant, political complexities compound and twist, and Li has to make a series of hard decisions about who she is, how much her past means to her, and who she believes and wants to support. There are pieces of cyberpunk, looks at a future of military special ops that reminds me of Richard Morgan, a murder mystery, a police procedural, and some parts that skirt with post-Singularity concepts of AIs.

This is a long novel with a lot of stuff in it, not all of it entirely successful. Moriarty struggles with clunky terminology, narrative riddled with science and pseudo-science, and a bit of too-detailed explanation of the "specifications of every weapon" variety. Spin State has some hard science-fiction grounding and I don't begrudge Moriarty's desire to show it off (there are eight pages of references at the end of the novel), but it did keep throwing me out of the rhythm of the story. It also builds up a climax that is almost but not quite beyond Moriarty's descriptive abilities, and as a result gets a bit mystical, metaphorical, and hard to follow. (Moriarty does pull it back together admirably for the denouement.)

But the best part of the story, its moral center and the bulk of its material, is coal mining. The authorial choice to put magical future material in a coal deposit is a bit strained (although given the revelations about Bose-Einstein condensate, perhaps not as strained as it first appears), but I can't argue with the opportunity it provides to tackle the standard cyberpunk themes of runaway corporate and government greed with far more resonance than most cyberpunk novels. Moriarty writes a compelling portrayal the miners, the town, the union, and the behavior of the corporations and the government towards mining operations that are vital to the structure of human civilization. I think the best was the strong sense of futility, the sense of rampant injustice about which the protagonist could do nothing, and the mixed feelings of the miners towards a life that they're both exceptionally good at and which is killing them. I would have expected coal mining dropped into the middle of a far-future cyberpunk-inspired novel to have clashed, but instead it raises from a different direction many of the standard emotions of a bleak corporate-dominated cyberpunk future.

Almost as successful, but from an entirely different angle, is Moriarty's characterization of AIs, Cohen in particular. Li's partner in work and former lover is a fascinating character, and their relationship is deeper and more fascinating than either of them individually. This is one of the best-written romantic sub-plots I've read in science fiction, in part because it never hits you over the head with the romantic sub-plot. It's prickly, strange, and twisty, full of banter, defenses, confusion, and unexpected bursts of honesty. Moriarty's writing isn't as polished, but thematically I think the romance angle of Spin State compares favorably to Ian McDonald's "The Djinn's Wife". The ending is certainly more satisfying and better justified (even if slightly indulgent). It's difficult to wrap one's mind around how a human could get to know an AI as a lover, and I'm not sure that Moriarty's presesentation was entirely convincing, but it's a powerful attempt.

Spin State suffers mostly from the standard first-novel problem of being stuffed to the gills with stuff. There's a bit too much going on, both in setting and theme, which leaves it with a choppy and sprawling feel. It's a bit longer than perhaps it should have been, although Moriarty's pacing holds up admirably well against the pressure, and it's enough of a mash of sub-genres and themes that I expect every reader will find at least one thing not to like. For me, it was Li's mental connections with various denizens of cyberspace; the artificial flashbacks and cliched feelings of presence are far inferior to Moriarty's lovingly detailed metaphorical exploration of Cohen's mind. But I expect every SF reader will find something to like here as well, and despite the sprawl Spin State surprisingly holds together. It is also, despite being the first of a series, a satisfying stand-alone novel with a distinct ending.

Moriarty's writing is uneven and could use some additional polish and control, but nonetheless, I recommend Spin State to any SF fan, and I expect Moriarty's later books to be even better.

Followed by Spin Control.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2007-06-14

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21