Undertow

by Elizabeth Bear

Cover image

Publisher: Bantam
Copyright: August 2007
ISBN: 0-553-58905-4
Format: Mass market
Pages: 332

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Greene's World is a colony world far from the Core, a watery, marshy world with a native species with a low level of technology. Humans have mining outposts and a city of ships that can scatter before the periodic hurricanes. They have communication with the Core worlds through connex, a network that can pass information and various objects but not living creatures. There's trade, but the colonists are here to stay unless they're willing to absorb a huge time gap from relativistic travel back to the Core. That makes Greene's World a good place to hide. It also means that the trade company that settled and exploits it can rule with little resistance.

Undertow is a frontier story, featuring a mix of unsavory characters and people with a hidden past and set in a background of colonial exploitation. The ranids are used as slave labor, abused, beaten up, and treated like animals. Several of the main characters are involved with a resistance movement, one that the others discover and are pulled into as the story unfolds. And the mining and drilling the company is doing turns out to be for much higher stakes than is at first apparent.

The two primary twists of this story are the ranid race and a probability-based magic system with some hand-waving explanations in quantum mechanics. The latter isn't hard SF by any stretch: conjurers can modify probabilities, cause unlikely accidents to happen, and bring good or bad luck to those they choose. It functions in the book as a sort of native knowledge. But it's not entirely anti-technological and Bear weaves it into the technology that allows universe-spanning communications. Unfortunately, the quantum mechanics link leads to a climax featuring bifurcation of worlds that I found confusing and less than satisfying, but it otherwise is a fun magic system that doesn't overpower the technology. I like powers that are unreliable, subtle, and play with the heads of the characters.

The better twist is the ranids. Bear does a good job with alien design, giving us scenes from the ranid viewpoint and scenes where the same actions have very different meanings to the ranids and the humans. The touches of detail — a protective mucous layer, life in lukewarm water, the smell and taste of different regions, and the importance of touch and eye contact — helped me get into their mindset and play with the world as they view it. The ranid link to conjuring and probabilities was a bit less satisfying but it fit well with ranid culture. I liked the culture built around stories and around travel. This is a solid alien portrayal that avoids many standard traps (including some around human/alien communication, which I think Bear dealt with well).

Otherwise, we have the normal Bear cast of people with past damage, people reinventing themselves, and people making mistakes and living with the consequences, stuck in a mix of networked living, frontier problems, and some political commentary on colonialism (although the correct side in that fight is mostly taken for granted). There's an eerie (if accidental) similarity to Spin State, but while Moriarty's society reminded me of US coal miners, Bear's reminds me of indigenous Central and South Americans being exploited by European and US mining companies. It's a similar background, but Bear's material deals more with the us versus them edge and sharp differences in technological capability. I liked how the background of injustice didn't overwhelm. It's not unimportant, but it lets a plot run on top, avoids lots of infodumping, and shows a more practical reaction than frothing outrage.

I really liked most of this book. Cricket in particular is a great character. André I didn't warm to as much, but I appreciate a protagonist who isn't a noble hero, or even a likeable scoundrel, but really is a self-centered opportunist who still has a streak of peculiar ethics. The climax and ending, though, didn't do as much for me. I felt like the political background was a touch too thin and a little too unexplained to hold the weight of the plot, and I could have done with a bit more explanation of the probability fallout and conclusion.

Bear's books keep almost but not quite reaching exceptional for me. Each new book I open hoping this will be the one that makes that quantum leap, but it hasn't quite happened yet. Undertow is good, solid entertainment, not quite as good as Carnival, but still well worth reading. I'm convinced, though, that Bear's eventually going to write a book I can't stop raving about.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2007-09-17

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21