by Galen Strickland, TheTempletonGate.com

This is the first novel from M. M. (Mary) Buckner, from Ace Books, one of the most prestigious publishers of SF. I agree with the quotes above; it is a very impressive debut, and I look forward to further works from her. If I had been her editor, there might have been a few minor changes, but for the most part this is a book I think we will be hearing about next year when it comes time for awards nominations (although lately I have begun to wonder if I have any idea what appeals to other readers and writers). [Added note: this book was nominated for the Philip K. Dick Award, presented to the best novel published as a paperback original, however it did not win.]

Set on an ecologically ravaged Earth where humanity has been forced to abandon the surface for domed, underground (and undersea) habitats, the main action takes place in the year 2125. The first-person narrator is Jolie Sauvage, a young “tunnel-rat” orphan from under-Paris, whose chance discovery of a surface-suit inevitably leads her to form her own business. Jolie’s Trips caters to rich .Com clients who wish to thrill to the harsh conditions of the toxic surface. These “commies” are the world’s royalty, born into the ruling families of one of the fourteen commercial dynasties that own all of the habitable environs of the northern hemisphere, not to mention the contracts of all the rank-and-file workers, the “protes.”

The other principal players in this drama are: Jin Airlangga Sura, a handsome Indonesian movie star, whom Jolie meets when he signs up for a climbing expedition to Mt. Puncak Jaya; Sir Suradon Sura, Jin’s father and CEO of Pacific.Com, which controls the majority of Asia; and Dr. Judith Merida, who has been experimenting with a radical neurosurgical technique designed to unlock the mind’s untapped potential for perception. Despite his priviledged status, Jin sympathizes more with the protes and wants to undermine his father’s power. He sees Dr. Merida’s technique as a possible way for him to accomplish his goals.

From the first sentence (“We lose our lives even as we live them.”) to the last, this book is in turn poignant, thought-provoking, and action-packed, all at the appropriate times. Jolie is a well-developed character, tough and resilient due to the harsh conditions of her youth, and yet fragile and vulnerable as well, especially in regards to her developing love for Jin. The transformation of Jin into the realms of hyperthought is handled a bit too cautiously perhaps. I got the feeling the process was slow in developing, and that he had many more revelations ahead of him by novel’s end. Hopefully this does not lead to sequels, which seems to be the inevitable trend these days. I’m content to ponder on what Jin’s future might be on my own, and would rather Ms. Buckner turn her talents to other ideas and scenarios.
There is an interesting juxtapostion of Jin’s struggle with that of his namesake, Prince Airlangga of Java. This 11th Century Indonesian hero’s reign spanned 23 years, and launched an economic and artistic renaissance in Java and Bali. His story is told in the epic poem “Arjunavivaha,” an excerpt of which can be read on Ms. Buckner’s webpage.

Now to the few things I would have changed. The harsh conditions depicted are supposedly due to global warming causing drastic changes in the environment, from flooding of coastal cities to the buildup of toxic chemicals in the atmosphere. I am skeptical of global warming in general, and yet even if it is something that could possibly happen I do not think the changes would be as quick and severe as depicted in this novel. Had the book been set several hundred years into the future this situation might have been more plausible, but the year 2057 is cited as the key turning point, the beginning of the “great die-off.” And yet Jin makes a comment at one point about there being twelve billion people on the planet, well over twice the current population. I find it hard to believe the Earth’s ecology as described could support that number.

Also, throughout the book Jolie frequently uses several stock phrases, in French. This account is being written several years after the fact. When she is recording a conversation she had it makes sense that she occasionally resorted to her native tongue. But when the rest of her journal is in standard English, such interjections sound a little forced after the first time or two. Besides, based on the way I was able to translate some of those phrases they seem to not always be used properly, but of course I’m willing to admit I may be wrong about that.

Other than these two quibbles I would recommend the book, and hope it is successful enough to ensure that Ace (or another publisher) will endeavor to aid Ms. Buckner in developing her craft for many years to come.