Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Book Review: Twinmaker by Sean Williams

I've been fan of Sean Williams' series of Twinmaker short stories ever since I discovered them via Lightspeed Magazine.  They're set in a world were teleportation, known as d-mat, has become the primary source of transportation and manufacturing.  When I heard that Sean was going to create a novel set in the same world, also known as Twinmaker, I was very excited.  Now that I've read the novel I'm...kind of disappointed.

The novel follows Clair Hill, a typical girl of the post-scarcity world.  She and her best friend Libby are trying to join the Crashlanders, and exclusive clique/party group that finds new party locations by jumping to random locations in the d-mat booths.  There's this rumor going around about something called Improvement; according to the rumors it can change a person's physical appearance using d-mat.  Libby tries it and begins acting strange before disappearing completely.

Clair sets out to do everything she can to find Libby.  Along the way she enlists the help of Jessie, a boy raised in the Stainer community (a group of people abstaining from d-mat) and an AI named Q.  Her quest takes her across the world and unravels a conspiracy leading all the way back to VIA, the government body responsible for watching over d-mat operations.

Now, that sounds like a pretty good novel doesn't it?  Sean is an excellent writer, you really should check out his short stories, and this novel had every reason to succeed and be great.  And yet it didn't succeed and it wasn't great.  There's a lot of points I want to talk about, but I think I ought to be fair here and talk about the things I did like, and that Sean did get write, before I get to the negative bits.

Clair is written as the type of character who would typically fill the sidekick role or the best friend role, and I like how here Sean elevated her to hero/protagonist status.  I also liked how Jessie and Q were written.  Jessie had a very nuanced and well rounded personality; he doesn't by into the Stainer philosophy, and he's wants to try d-mat.  At the same time, he's still cautious and, for all their faults and the Stainers are his family and he can't just walk out on them.  As for Q, well, what can I say?  Despite lacking a physical body she was a bit of cute robot girl, and I found her constantly asking Clair questions and trying to learn about humans absolutely adorable.  I also thought that it was interesting that in a market saturated with dystopias that the world of the novel was fairly utopian.  Also, I've got to give credit to Katie Koster for her excellent narration of the audiobook.

Now then, let's talk about the less than pleasant aspects.  First of all, compared to the Lightspeed short stories, this novel felt considerably dumbed down.  I understand that Sean was aiming for the young adult market, but even taking that into account it still came across as incredibly dumbed down.  Another issue I had was that this is a novel were people an travel the world instantaneously, but it just didn't feel like that.  What I mean is that almost everywhere the characters went felt bland, homogenized and lacking in personality.  Granted, this might have been a byproduct of such instantaneous transportation and the post-scarcity world, but we never get any explanation about that.

Now let me tell you about the Stainers.  They're those people I mentioned who distrust d-mat, and think anyone who uses it is a soulless zombie.  They're also convinced that it's all a conspiracy by the One World Government...and yes, after d-mat was invented all nations merged together (that I'm not so bothered by).  So they sound basically like the future version of those internet loons who are always ranting and raving about the conspiracy of the week, right?  Unfortunately, in this case the loons turn out to be right about everything.  Look, maybe they had a point, but they were all so completely unlikable and so completely unsympathetic that I had a hard time see it.  For example, they constantly give Clair shit because she uses d-mat, and this conflicts with their holier than thou mentality.  

Don't even get me started on the leader of the Stainers, and how smug he was, or how he was practically the personification of their holier than thou mentality.  The Stainers got so bad that by the end of the novel I was actually rooting for the bad guys.  Generally speaking, works that have an anti-technology message tend to get on my nerves.  I tend to get irritated about this because of all of the countless ways technology has improved and enriched our lives; to think otherwise would be foolish.  I'm fairly certain that Sean is pro-technology, and that he didn't intend to write an anti-technology narrative into the book.  However, to paraphrase Kosh from Babylon 5, understand literature is a three edged sword: there's what the author thinks they wrote, there's what the reader thinks was written and there's what is actually written.  

There's also certain details that don't quite add up.  For example, apparently the Moon has been colonized, but nowhere else in the solar system.  I find it hard to believe that humanity would lose its drive to explore, seek out new worlds and boldly go simply because d-mat got invented.  Also, d-mat helped to reverse global warming and climate change, and yet the world still shows obvious signs of this, such as Sacramento having a sea coast and New York City being flooded.          

The novel doesn't really end so much as it just stops.  No resolution, no tying of loose ends, no meaningful ending; it just...stops.  I know Sean was probably going for a cliffhanger, but there's a difference between a cliffhanger and just stopping in the middle of the action.  It know there's the old saving it for the next book argument, but there's still things that must be wrapped up in the first book.  Also, it is a top priority to get the reader interest by the time the first book is over.  If you fail to capture the reader's interest by the first book then we have a serious problem, and they aren't going to stick around for future books.  

The bottom line is that I had high hopes only to be incredibly let down.  I might get the sequel, Crashland, if only because the protagonists of the Lightspeed short stories will play a major role.  However, that's a very big maybe at this point.  All I'm saying is that if you feel compelled to purchase a copy of Twinmaker, book or audiobook, approach with caution.  

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