Carnival is a standalone science fiction novel by Elizabeth Bear, and the first of her books that I bought – also the only one I’ve ever seen in a bookshop over here. The several books I now have of hers seem to fall into groups which represent her take on a particular sub-genre – to me this one is Bear’s take on the eco/feminist science fiction story. By that I mean the sort of thing that Sherri S. Tepper writes. But as with the others of Bear’s books that I’ve read this takes the familiar tropes of that sub-genre and does something different with them.
Carnival is set in a future where Old Earth is still the political leader of several colony planets. The population of Earth is much reduced – the majority have been Assessed by the Governors. This is explained later in the book, the Governors are AI constructed by a group who felt humans were damaging the Earth too much so the best thing to do is to kill off most of them, then enforce strict controls on population and other ecologically damaging practices. The Governors use the ubiquitous nanotechnology to kill those they Assess as needing to die – starting in the first instance with all the white people (which included the creators of the Governors, something they would definitely have approved of). It’s an End of the World as We Know It catastrophe caused on purpose by a small group of extremists. After the first wave of Assessments several off-world colonies are founded, then the Governors bring the remaining population down to an “appropriate” number. Two of the protagonists are from Old Earth, on a diplomatic mission to one of the colonies.
Said colony is called New Amazonia – it’s the sort of society I have the impression Tepper would approve of. It’s completely run by women, who go armed and have a dueling culture. Men are studs, and second class citizens, unless they’re gay (“gentle”) in which case they might get a bit more education and rights but it’s not like they’re ever going to be on a par with a woman is it? New Amazonia has something Old Earth wants – a clean & limitless power source. Possessing that might make the Governors back off a bit on the population limits. And a third protagonist is the New Amazonian counterpart to the two Old Earth diplomats.
And there’s a third culture involved here too – this one totally alien. Kii’s species once lived on what is now New Amazonia, and there are several interludes from Kii’s point of view. At first Kii feels almost superfluous, but as the book goes on you find out why this is an essential thread of the narrative. And Kii too is a diplomat of sorts – Kii is explorer-caste “And things that are new are things that Kii’s caste is for”, who else would be observing the humans and maybe interacting with them?
One of the things I like about this book is that everyone (including the secondary characters) is the protagonist of their own story. The ones we follow are Michaelangelo & Vincent from Old Earth, Lesa from New Amazonia and Kii, but everyone has their own agenda and no-one is as simple as the mask they present to the world. And everyone is masking something. The conflict in the story comes from the clash between everyone’s goals, rather than a Good v. Bad struggle, even if some of the goals are more sympathetic to me than others. And people that we thought were on different sides aren’t, and people who seem on the same side might not be. Allegiances shift (or are revealed) several times during the story but it always feels like it grows out of who the characters are and what they want.
Something Bear does very deftly is keep each culture feeling both alien to us and yet still sympathetic. I think part of how she does this is to have the things that our current point of view character Others be things that are part of our culture, and the things that they just accept as the obvious axioms of existence be things that we look at in bemusement. So for instance, there’s a bit where one of the Old Earth men is observing in horror that Lesa has a pet, how could she? An example from the flip side of it is Lesa having a contemplative moment about how it’s not like you could expect a hormonal man to really cope with the pressure of government/civilisation, they’re just not biologically set up for it. And very much all the cultures on show have their own flaws. Vincent’s is from yet another culture, and it’s presented as having been almost an idyllic childhood, but I’m not really sure I believe that (and I don’t think Bear meant one to take it at face value).
There’s a lot of other stuff I could talk about too. Communication is definitely a key theme – all three of the human protagonists are very good with the unspoken sides of communication, Kii is in a First Contact situation (kinda). Which links in with the cultures stuff I just talked about – your basic axioms of society affect how you deal with people and the assumptions you make, and how you communicate. Sacrifice is another theme (often is in Bear’s stories, to get what you want you have to pay a high price and you have to decide if that price is worth it). This story also has something going on about choosing prices for other people – the very existence of Governors is a prime example of this. A few people chose that price on behalf of the whole world, and this was not a good and noble thing despite what they might’ve thought when they did it. And this ties in unsettlingly into the interactions with Kii towards the end of the book, ends and means again and I’m not quite comfortable with the choices made on behalf of Kii even if maybe there wasn’t anything else they could do, and maybe Kii was OK with it afterwards.
Pleasingly after the Banks I’ve been reading there’s a hopeful ending. It feels like maybe, just maybe, things will get better. The net change over the course of the story feels like a positive one.