A Warm, Un-cozy Place
By Cheryl Morgan
New small presses seem to be starting up every day. Some of them will undoubtedly be very good, others you can quickly see are just a self-published author with one of his family masquerading as the "editor" or "public relations executive". How does one tell the difference? Generally the web site is a good give-away. It also helps if someone reputable is behind the book you are being offered. In the case of Steel Sky by Andrew C. Murphy I picked up on the backgrounds of the people running per Aspera, and on a rave blurb for the book from David Brin. Iím very glad I did, because if Steel Sky is an indicator of the sort of books weíll be seeing from per Aspera youíll be hearing a lot more about these folks here.
Thereís a certain well known fantasy book in which the hairy-footed heroes live in holes in the ground. This has always struck me as a little unpleasant. Murphy clearly agrees. His characters also live in a hole in the ground, and it isnít a nice place at all. The Hypogeum is a very deep hole in the ground that people fled to hundreds of years ago when life on the surface became unviable. Not that they remember this. Theyíve been through a revolution or two since then, and now have a new religion that doesnít countenance a view of a world outside of the rock in which they are buried. A city like this has all sorts of resource constraints, and its government is necessarily harsh, including mandatory termination for non-productive citizens.
The boys lean over Moseley. In turn, they kiss his forehead and murmur their love for him. Beneath his mask the Deathsman smiles sourly. At every terminus he attends there are tears and kisses and heartfelt words, but the sentiments are so often the same. Even the words and phrases the mourners use tend to be identical from one group to another, as if they all drew their thoughts from a single liturgy of grief. The Deathsman yearns for a spark of originality, a hint of transcendence.
Part of the maintenance of such a society involves giving the general population hope. This is why the government officially adopted the myth of The Winnower, a shadowy demon-figure who supposedly haunts the tunnels and punishes wrongdoers. But what if someone were to try to make The Winnower a reality? What is some self-appointed vigilante turned himself into a superhero and went round murdering villains?
Fortunately such a man should be caught very easily. The Hypogeum is a surveillance society. Cameras are everywhere, and although The Culminant is supposedly the ruler of the city, the real power lies with Orcus, the Chief Scrutator, the man who controls the surveillance network. Orcus is watching you. Or at least he thinks he is. But his network is hundreds of years old, he has problems with his incompetent heir and overly-ambitious daughter, and heís not sure that he can trust the cityís AI.
If this sounds a bit like a comic book, donít worry, it isnít. Murphy is much more interested in his characters than in the fact of a superhero lead character. Indeed, in many ways The Winnower is not the lead character. Much attention is focused on Orcus and his fractious family; on Dr. Penn, a physician who canít bear to give up his patients to the Deathsmen; on Amarantha and Cadell, a young couple trying to reconcile their principles with their social ambitions; and on Orel and Bernie, two lowly engineers in the cityís waterworks. Murphy has a complex, multi-viewpoint structure to his novel, and he carries it off very well. He hasnít just created a neat setting for a tale of derring-do, he has created a society.
They walk in silence for a while. They pass a shabby-looking man slumped against a wall. Around his neck he wears a sign that says "FAULTY CYBERNETICS. PLEASE GIVE." As they pass him, a bright bolt of electricity arcs down his robotic arm, making his shoulders jump.
It is also noticeable that the characters undergo significant development during the book. None of them, not even The Winnower, are particularly sympathetic. Orcus would not look out of place in the upper echelons of the Republican Party. Amarantha is horribly self-centered until it is too late. Cadel is caring but dim. Dr. Penn is always looking over his shoulder for the ghost of his dead mother, who he is sure will disapprove of his efforts, no matter how hard he tries to do good. They all learn lessons, but the only character who makes a significant improvement to his life is Orcusís fat, cowardly heir, known as Second Son, who grows from being a blubbering wreck, bullied by his sister, to being a fully-fledged megalomaniac.
"How about this, Father. Total vision means more than just seeing the present. More even than seeing the past. Total vision means seeing the future, the whole of eternity laid out before you. Do you know why thatís possible, Father? Itís because people arenít really people. Theyíre robots, programmed by habit and personality. A man with total vision will always be able to foresee what the people around him will do next because theyíre really nothing more than cheap little puppets. They follow the same scripts over and over, endlessly repeating themselves with little variations, until they just wear out, run down, and fall over."
Which brings me to ponder why Steel Sky was not picked up by a major publisher. Thereís no doubt that Murphy can write, and write well. The two things I think his book is missing, from a big publisher viewpoint, are a sympathetic character and impetus to the plot. There isnít quite enough to keep you turning the pages, so while someone like me can admire Murphyís world-building and philosophical speculations, a more casual reader might not find quite enough in the book to want to keep reading. Steel Sky is one of those books where I expect to see reviews complaining about "bad characterization", meaning that the reviewer didnít like any of the characters.
Thankfully I donít see this as a problem for Murphy. He can do the hard stuff ó that is, write powerful prose and structure a complex novel ó the rest ought to come easily. And indeed there should be a reasonable market for his work without it. I liked Steel Sky enough to have waved it at Gary Wolfe and Rick Kleffel while I was at World Horror Con. I hope the rest of per Asperaís output is as good.