Science Fiction | Elizabeth Bear
Carnival comes across as the nth book in a series. I got the niggling feeling that things had happened before, which I should read something else to know about. But then I got the feeling that, if this was true, it was a very good series novel, since by mid-book, you get to know the world, the advanced technology, the social state, and all the rest of the things that ... slow down, that you expect to grok by mid-book in a good SF book anyway. Hmm, not, after all, a series novel, but possibly another in a 'world'. I need to go read E Bear's earlier books.
Vincent Katherinessen and Michaelangelo Osiris Leary Kusanagi-Jones (huff, puff) are Old Earth spies sent to New Amazonia to act as diplomat-agents, several decades after the last invasion of New Amazonia by Old Earth failed spectacularly. Vincent and K-J (I cannot imagine the patience Elizabeth Bear has to keep typing that name in full!) are clandestine lovers, one a truth teller and one a Liar, separated when discovered to be lovers and brainwashed into hetero life (lots of people in this country would love to have that technology; some even claim they do already), or are they? But New Am does not allow stud males on-planet, so they are dragged out of various disgraces and despatched there. New Am has discovered the first ever alien artifacts, and is suspected of having free clean energy, a bounty slavered after by Old Earth.
Old Earth in ancient times had created Governors, and programmed them to ensure that any human who was not completely environmentally friendly was 'assessed' and killed. Now, the Governors enforce local laws so long as the culture is environmentally friendly, which New Am is. In spades.
The local culture is macha. Female version of macho. Duels, gunslingers, and no male can aspire to anything except being 'gentled' or else having to fight to live in the Games in the Carnival. Culture clashes and the viewpoint of the suppressed form a large part of the charm of this book.
Sample, from an early scene where Vincent is nauseated by the food on offer:
"The food isn't to your liking, Miss Katherinessen?"
... "We don't eat animals," he said negligently. "We consider murder barbaric, whether it's for food or not."
..."Strange," Montevideo said. ... "I hear some on Coalition worlds will pay handsomely for meat."
"Are you suggesting you support illegal trade with Coalition worlds?" Vincent's smile was a thing of legend. Hackles up, Montevideo took a half-step forward, and he was only using a quarter of his usual wattage. "There's a child sex trade, too. I don't suppose you condone that."
Montevideo's mouth was half open to answer before she realised she'd been slapped. "That's the opinion of somebody whose government encourages fetal murder and contract slavery?"
"It is," Vincent said. He pulled his hand from his pocket and studied his nails. ...
And then Vincent looked up, as if his distraction had been a casual thing, and gave her a few more watts. He murmured, almost wistfully, "Now that we've established that we think each other monsters, do you suppose we can get back to business?"
There, our spies meet the local truth teller, Lesa Pretoria, and the assorted cliques that create the complications that move the story forward. There are assassination attempts, upturned views, double agents, hidden meanings, more double agents, aliens, technology, parents, still more double agents, people.
And I love the tech. Nothing is explained. It just is. The House that creates rooms and facilities as required. The watch which generates a wardrobe, which turns out to be a 'weaponised utility fog'. I love this kind of science fiction. It soothes me, and reassures me that imagination is valued and live and kicking.