Thursday, August 21, 2008

Review - The Quantum Rose

Slave Girl of Gor
by John Norman
2001 Nebula Winner for Best Novel

Hang on something isn't quite right here.

Let me just check my notes...

Oh I see the problem.

The Quantum Rose
by Catherine Asaro
2001 Nebula Winner for Best Novel

Sorry about that. It's very easy to get those books confused.

This book is completely terrible. It's poorly plotted, features a cast that I hoped would die in horrible ways, the science fiction elements are laughable, and it carries some rather disturbing messages that I suspect are the results of an incompetent writer since no sane modern author could possibly advocate them. The first sign that there might be something very wrong comes from the reviews on the dust jacket: The Romantic Reader and Romantic Times chime in with high praise along with which the author's biography tells us that she happens to be an editor for (no conflict of interest there, right?). Since romance novels and science fiction novels have very different standards glowing reviews from romance magazines is like sending up a warning flare; The Time Traveller's Wife may have merged romance and SF nicely but wasn't marketed that way.

The Quantum Rose features what might be the most poorly thought out society I have ever encountered in science fiction. Bear in mind that as you read this I am not exaggerating or presenting my own spin on things; this is explicitly how it works. The society is based on tight social contracts which are always binding and a violation of them results in the person who broke the contract being hunted down. With me so far? Good. Now these contracts require that if someone makes an offer on anything that the only way to refuse it is for the person the offer was made to must pay the person making offer more than they offered. Starting to see the problem? Finally the offers can be for anything, especially people since that's how "marriage" works on this planet.

The problem with such a society should be self-evident. A person can just keep making offers on things they don't want to get money. On things they do want they just offer over and over again each time offering 2^n-1 where n is the number of offers made until the person who was rejecting the offers runs out of money. (1 dollar for the first offer which the counter offer must be 2 dollars; then adding those two dollars to their dollar they offer three dollars and the counter offer must be four dollars and so on.)

Our heroine is the governor of a province on a back water planet. Exactly how much of a back water I have no clue; typically they seem to be at a renaissance festival level since they lack even electricity but then Asaro drops in homemade solar powered devices which would require a fairly sophisticated manufacturing base. She is due to marry the abusive governor of a neighboring province mainly because paying him off to not marry him would bankrupt her country. However a crazy guy is renting one of her palaces in between having drunken rampages across the countryside and after he sees her naked once he immediately offers significantly more than the abusive governor for her on the condition that the marriage occurs immediately.

This is in the first thirty pages so that should give you an idea of just how bad this is.

Naturally it is "true love" and our slave-governor starts to immediately change her man for the better. He is, of course, "troubled" but just talking to him changes that. A two minute conversation takes care of his pesky alcoholism, for example. Since it wouldn't do to have Mr. Right just be a nobody he's the empathic prince of an interstellar empire in hiding. Unfortunately for them despite the fact that their contractual legal system should be as simple as "If X>Y then" her original fiance has decided he has been cheated, attempts mass murder as a distraction, and kidnaps the heroine. And despite being more obvious than a neon Budweiser sign in a cathedral the offworlders decide that he must be a nice guy. Eventually true love wins out and they go off to free the prince's home planet through some rather dubious methods.

So just to make this clear: the heroine is a willing sex slave to the "hero" and this is "romantic". Trauma is cured by love and if you're attracted to someone then you can change them with no effort to remove their negative aspects. It's the stuff of bad romance novels, not good books or good science fiction in general.

Our heroine is so passive she could have been replaced with a blow up sex doll with little change to the plot. She is a plot device not a person, a prize for the men in the book to fight over. The only thing she does is improve her man and once he's made perfect by page 100 she is simply carried around. The other characters don't really fare much better in depth but at least they get to be active participants in the story.

The Romantic Times quote mentions that "Connoisseurs of good science writing [...] are in for a real treat," which proves that people who review romance novels are not the ones to look to for elementary school levels of science. In this book a closed population for 3000 years has somehow managed to retain traits bred into specific groups rather than smearing together. The book goes so far to mention that someone is different because he has 55% of one type of DNA and 45% of another. Asaro also provides some hard numbers on the backwater planet which are so obviously bad that any science fiction fan will immediately say, "Hey, that's wrong!" Her hand waving explanations later in the book actually manage to make things worse.

I haven't even touched on the prose which just gave me a headache. Quite a bit of time at the beginning of the novel the technology of the settlers of the backwater planet is mentioned in the context of "Boy those ancients sure were stupid/silly/odd"; the reader is supposed to find this humorously ironic since we know that they've lost the knowledge but that kind of gag stopped being clever in the 1930's. And don't get me started on how modern English ties into that; the linguistics are just horrifying in how shoddy they are.

I need to mention the author's afterword where Asaro explains the book. Needless to say it is one final nail in the "She really is that bad" coffin. She spells out her metaphors for the reader but her metaphors don't make sense in the context of the book. It's like a first year English major thinking that just because they put a reference in that inherently makes it a good reference. If a metaphor must be explained in detail to a work's target audience then it is not a good metaphor.

I put The Quantum Rose down with The Terminal Experiment at the bottom of the Nebula winners. It's so bad that I consider it an attempt on my life. Don't just avoid this one, run from it.