Filler content with a girl called alice

This review appeared in The Third Alternative #35:-

SISTER ALICE

Robert Reed

Orbit pb, 408pp, £6.99

reviewed by Peter Tennant

The cover blurb has Stephen Baxter acclaiming Reed as ‘the new century’s most compelling SF voice’, which seems a little premature given that we’re only three years in, but his new novel plays out on a scale that makes such claims seem comparatively modest.

The story is set ten million years in the future, with the human race divided between ordinary mankind and the Thousand Families, immortal and godlike beings. At a point in the distant past the race faced extinction as a result of the scientific mastery it had attained, and the decision was made that advanced science and the abilities it conferred would be restricted to an elite, specifically chosen for their ability to wield power without abusing it. And so far the Great Peace has worked well, with the Families using their fantastic powers wisely and for the benefit of all. But now a group of these immortals have undertaken an ambitious project at the galactic core and things have gone horribly wrong, with a wave of raw energy sweeping outwards and destroying all in its path. Countless inhabited worlds face annihilation and there is nothing anybody can do to avert catastrophe. The Families are divided among themselves and the Great Peace looks like unravelling.

Alice Chamberlain, one of the project’s prime movers, returns to Earth, still the cradle of mankind and centre of government. Millions of years old and with a power beyond measure, she could destroy the planet with a thought, but instead forsakes her power and surrenders to the authorities, an act of contrition for the terrible thing that she and others of her kind have done. But before she surrenders Alice confers a small part of that power on the youngster Ord, who is forced to flee and pursued the length and breadth of the galaxy by the authorities, while whatever obscure plan Alice has set in motion unwinds.

This is a novel for those who like their sense of wonder taken to the max, with Reed offering us marvels on a scale most would shy away from. There is no doubting his towering ambition as worlds are transformed, the laws of physics unravelled, time and space themselves undone; all with the cheery joie de vie of a stage magician pulling rabbits from silk top hats. The magician simile is appropriate. Reed avoids having to explain by adopting Clarke’s dictum that advanced science is identical with magic. The Families might put a technological gloss on what they do, but at bottom we’re talking hocus pocus. Whenever she performs one scientific miracle or another, Alice’s methods are described as ‘powerful and obscure’ in lieu of anything more concrete. Two men are shown walking across a snow covered landscape, but in reality they are crossing the galaxy at a velocity only slightly less than the speed of light. This is not Hard SF in the way that Egan and Benford write it, but fantasy seeded with the buzz words of quantum mechanics and particle physics.

Sister Alice is a lot of fun as an exercise in putting over big ideas in comprehensible terms, and there is plenty of action, with a series of fights, chases, schemes, crosses and double crosses, while the characters themselves, especially wily old Alice, are never less than intriguing, and the subtext on hubris gives it a moral authority beyond that of mere sfx spectacular. But Sister Alice is less satisfactory in other areas, with so much seeming to hinge on what is convenient for the story rather than attempting to work out consistently how things would actually develop given the various premises.

For one thing I find the idea that mankind would confer all advanced scientific ability on a chosen few and that this accord would last unchallenged for ten million years a bit hard to swallow. For another the Families, despite their ancient pedigree, hardly seem to have evolved at all, except as regards scientific prowess; they’re pretty much like somebody you’d meet down the shops, only with the ability to terraform. Reed tells us how different they are, but seems unable to effectively show this quality. His vision of the future is one that seems static as regards human development, and there is little attempt to render it credible.

Credibility becomes a serious issue when we get to the matter of Ord, as it’s hard to see why Alice doesn’t herself perform the task she’s set for him. As he’s dashing about from one end of the galaxy to the other I couldn’t help but ask myself why this is required, and Reed does no more than hint at an answer.

This is a book with a lot of sound and fury, a grand and visionary work of fiction, and it can be enjoyed on those terms, but the devil is in the details and those haven’t really been worked out to a satisfactory degree.

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