Carnival

by Elizabeth Bear

Cover image

Publisher: Bantam
Copyright: December 2006
ISBN: 0-553-58904-0
Format: Mass market
Pages: 393

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Michelangelo Kusanagi-Jones and Vincent Katherinessen were the premiere working team of spies for the Earth-based Coalition until their partnership was torn apart by the catastrophic failure of a mission. They had not seen each other in seventeen years, but they've been reunited to negotiate with or infiltrate the New Amazonia government and obtain their infinite clean energy source. Such an energy source is vital for more than the obvious reasons. Humanity is monitored by Governors of its own creation but no longer under its control, Governors who enforce strict ecological restrictions on human activity and kill those who violate the rules.

The Coalition is a traditional sexist government with few female operatives. New Amazonia is a female-ruled world where men are chattel and feared for their aggressiveness. Michelangelo and Vincent are gay, the only operatives that the Coalition has on hand who are acceptable (barely) to the New Amazonians. They're also very much in love with each other, but neither can trust the other; they're both plotting against the Coalition in different ways.

As with Bear's other novels, Carnival focuses on the characters first and foremost. The story is told in tight third-person perspective alternating between Michelangelo, Vincent, and Lesa (one of the elite of New Amazonia), showing from each other's perspective and that of a third party Michelangelo and Vincent's reunion, connection, and conflict between trust, self-defense, and attempted distancing. Vincent is hyper-sensitive to other people's emotions, expressions, and body language. Michelangelo is his inverse and complement, a Liar who can (sometimes) hide or disguise his feelings even from Vincent. Vincent is the diplomat and Michelangelo is the bodyguard and operative. Despite their separation, they know each other like two halves of the same person and fall into the same patterns, but politics and history get in the way of trust. And it's scary to have someone know you that well when you can't trust them, or let them trust you.

Centering a book on characters with this sort of skill at reading people is a very effective structural choice above its effect on the plot. Bear's writing style tends towards close observation and description of body language and emotional cues, sometimes in preference to simple narrative description of emotional state. With this choice of main characters, she builds into the story a reason for the reader to read those descriptions as closely as she writes them. The characters are trying to understand each other by watching every movement and clue (particularly since Lesa has some of Vincent's skill and both she and Vincent are trying to understand more about each other to get an edge), the reader is paying close attention to the descriptions since the characters are, and this makes Bear's natural writing style all the more effective. I was impressed by the unity between reading experience and character action; it's a subtle commentary on reading experience embedded in the story while strengthening reader identification with the story at the same time.

The plot felt like a combination of a first-contact novel of sorts and a political thriller. New Amazonia was founded by near-separatist feminists who blame male aggression for most of the ills of the world and structured a society around controlling men. That society is built on cities they discovered when they first came to the planet, cities that were abandoned except for animals that seemed akin to pets. Those cities were built and inhabited by an intelligent species in the past and appear to be in some sense alive, but the intelligent species has since disappeared. The start of the story deals mostly with the New Amazonia post-utopia (there should be a word for the sort of semi-broken, semi-surreal society one gets by putting real people into a utopian structure and letting them rattle around in it for a few generations), which initially is mostly annoying. New Amazonia society is obviously broken in several respects and is built on some eye-rolling assumptions, and at the start I was anxious to get past the stupid human structures and dive more into the alien civilization on which they built.

Stick with it, though, because what Bear is doing thematically is more subtle than it at first appears. She sets up three deeply flawed and apparently unworkable systems that attempt to control the negative, destructive tendencies of a species, shows where they each don't work and miss some of the destructive impulses, but also shows where they do work and how they arrive from different tradeoffs and assumptions. The three societies also form a mutual circle of dominoes, where each system is stable within itself but the inhabitants of each system can trigger the collapse of one of the others. The result is some nice moral ambiguity, unclear choices, and lingering doubts about what sort of future the resolution will lead to. I was torn between rooting for a revolution and worrying about revolutionary destruction of some of those controls. And, more notably, this is set up without infodumps or unnecessary exposition, arising naturally out of the character interactions and the plot.

Oh, and against this thematic background and amongst this characterization is a good spy novel, with political dinners and jousting, an alien mystery, assassination attempts, back-stabbing, divided loyalties, and multiple players who sometimes switch sides. Bear does a good job here with exposition and context-setting; I was able to keep the players straight without much difficulty, avoiding my largest problem with many spy novels.

I didn't warm to the lead characters as much as those in Bear's previous novels and that hurt my enjoyment some, but I think that's mostly a matter of personal taste. The biggest flaw in Carnival for me was rather too much of smug, fundamentalist believers in a simplistic utopia. New Amazonia is not unbelievable, just annoying. If you put up with it for the first third or half of the book, though, it fades into the background and the plot takes hold. Recommended, although not quite as highly as Bear's other work.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2006-12-12

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21