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on Sep. 24, 2011 :
INTRODUCTION: "A 40th-Century drifter follows a beautiful woman across the galaxy. A funny and thought-provoking novel that challenges our traditional beliefs about love, sex, immortality and spirituality."
When I saw the blurb of Dancing with Eternity which is published by the new Camel Press, I was intrigued so I downloaded the 20% Smashwords sample and I read it and was so impressed that I immediately bought the ebook. The more I progressed through the novel, the more impressive it became and while I will explain some of the reasons later, I will say that Dancing with Eternity turned out to be the first mind blowing 2011 sff novel I did not previously know about.
OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: Dancing with Eternity stands out in three areas: world building which includes both natural philosophy and strange societies, voice and characters.
It is the 40th century and Mo aka Mohandas born on Mars in the 22nd century and named for the famous 20th century Indian leader, has been a lucky man. Born on the cusp of the great revolutions that transformed humanity for ever - the understanding of mind which led to the "net of human minds" and then to effective immortality and ftl by harnessing the power of minds traveling near light speed - he became a relatively famous architect, wealthy enough to afford the very expensive immortality treatments and weather the three centuries of turmoil when humanity adapted to this radical change.
Led by the amoral but efficient multinational corporations known today as "syndicates", the human race's ruthless expansion into the universe created enough wealth to afford everyone's "rebooting" - as the immortality treatments came to be known - at a price though. And Mo has not passed unscathed through the turmoil, so despite becoming even wealthier, from the stabilization of the 25th century on, he started drifting through life, exploring the ever expanding human reach, mostly as a musician or actor with occasional "domestic lifetimes".
Two other major events disrupted the continual expansion: the brutal "gender war" of the 30th century - the millennial anniversary of its cessation has been celebrated some five decades before the start of the novel and was partly the impulse motif of the book's plot - in which the worlds of the Pleiades tried to secede under the Yin radical feminist movement, expelling all males under the "new gender laws" and creating their own "net". The main human polity, now known as Draco from the humanity's expansion in that direction, responded with armed intervention and the ensuing war was terrible, finally ending in a truce under which the Pleiades remained politically independent but repelled the gender discrimination laws and reintegrated into the original "net" - this last being crucial since the net's effectiveness depends on the number of minds logged on.
Even scarier was humanity's "first contact" in the 35th century with a mysterious alien civilization on what is now named Brainard's Planet. Despite the best efforts of the expedition led by the aforementioned Brainard, humans could not initiate contact with the natives, but instead a mysterious "plague" destroying all Earth originated lifeforms at cellular level - and with rebooting accelerating the destruction, the death is final unless the personality is stored on the net and the body cloned from earlier genetic material, happenings that are not computationally feasible on a large scale - started to spread with the return of the expedition to human space. Only the brutal quarantine of several planets and the ensuing billions of deaths spared humanity. Today Brainard's planet is under strict quarantine and orbital observation, though nobody is insane to go there anyway, while five hundred years of observations produced some startling results and even more mysteries...
So back to the late 40th century and Mo now an actor with a lizard-like scaly body form gets marooned on a resort planet 350 light years from Earth over a tax dispute with "the system". Not only that but he is kicked off net and has to practice daily to keep up in shape, while providing "physical comfort" to a local shopkeeper for shelter and food.
When a mysterious beautiful woman going by the nickname of Steel makes him an offer to pay his back taxes and take him to space in return for him completing her seven member starship crew and being able to go ftl again, Mo cannot refuse and the adventure starts - as mentioned ftl aka freewheeling happens by the melding of minds at near light speed and each starship has a required minimum crew - here there is a little niggle since I would expect that each starship to have an "extra" just in case, the way today's airplanes have copilots, though maybe the all around existence of the "net" made that seem unnecessary.
I hope the above tidbits about the superb world building of the author intrigued you to try the sample at least, but I want to discuss the characters starting with the narrator himself. Mo's voice is very distinctive and sounds pitch perfect within the universe of the novel and as one of the oldest humans around, his experience and store of odd knowledge comes in handy on occasion also. Here he is at a party "celebrating" a local woman who goes to pay for her needed "reboot" the usual way:
"Everybody started somewhere. Most of them were between six and ten ’boots old, products of the Great Expansion of the early thirties. They’d all been hatched by the corps or syndicates to be used as labor to hew habitable worlds out of the raw material of creation. And for most of them that’s what they’d done every other life. It’s what they would do.
Somebody said, “How many verses?” and I replied, “Nineteen.” A kind of ripple went through the crowd and I looked around to see if I could find Steel or Yuri or Marcus. I spotted them; they were all in one of the gazebos. They’d evidently been following the action, or they’d heard the crowd hush. They were all looking at me, looking for the groove, trying to match my energy. I realized that, even though I hadn’t said anything yet, I’d already started. My silence was the beginning of my first verse. I saw Matessa smiling at me and I didn’t want her to be lonely before she left simply because I wasn’t in the habit of letting people know who I was. Even so, it was hard to start. What do I tell them, I thought, who are so much younger, who had not experienced the world before the net, before re-booting, before freewheeling, before...
“I wasn’t started. I was born—”"
Of the other seven members of the crew, Steel aka Estelle the mysterious rich captain starts being the focus, but slowly we meet the other three main characters: Archie of the Yin, the Pleiades doctor/life scientist, Yuri, the tech/hard science wizard with a continual teenager like personality of the geek/genius that hides a painful secret from his early life in the terrible war of a 1000 years ago and Steel's protege, Alice who seems to be very young or to have had a very traumatic last reboot since she seems to be aware only of very recent events. And since for more than a thousand years, humans have not been born anymore, only being artificially brought up by the syndicates when/where labor was needed with the promise of the second life and capital in return for the first life of labor - one of the hard prices humanity is still paying for eternal life - Alice is indeed a mystery for us and for Mo.
Dancing with Eternity flows very well on the page and both the universe and the characters are revealed slowly with moments of tension, adventure, desperate situations and escapes, while twists and turns abound. The novel so impressed me that I had to reread it immediately after finishing it and then I appreciated even better the little tidbits whose full import the reader won't realize until much later.
Overall Dancing with Eternity (A++, top 10 novel of 2011) is a stellar debut that shows why science fiction is still the most interesting genre of today.
Note: this review has been originally published on Fantasy Book Critic and all the links and references are to be found there
(reviewed within a month of purchase)