Etherwalker, by Cameron Dayton Etherwalker on Amazon
Short version, I give this a 4 out of 5. It has interesting settings, characters, and good characterization… most of the time. But there’s a critical point in the story in which the major character, Enoch, has fallen in with one side, and then a few pages later switches to the other. Granted, he’s leaving the side of some pretty bad guys, and he has seen some of the horrible things they do. But we never get to see him make that decision. Given Enoch has been presented as being “bad at emotions”, then the reader has a reasonable expectation that we should get to see him struggling with them – especially when he’s deciding to turn his back on someone who’s apparently been helping him, to help someone who might be lying to him.
Outside of that, the book holds together very well. A lot of that has to do with worldbuilding. Not so much the details of the shattered technical base, the genetic manipulation, the monsters and human responses to same. In the philosophy.
There’s a bit where Enoch is asking about the Pensanden (technopaths in a big way), and Rictus tells him they were based in, among other things, Mayan and Aztec mysticism. This seems like a throwaway “build it on something exotic and foreign” line. It’s not.
Aztec philosophy, in particular, is chillingly fitting to a world that’s apparently gone through massive use and abuse of genetic engineering. I ended up picking up a book on it at one point. (New book shelves in the library are so cool!) I’m not going to try and reconstruct the three main strands in it from memory, but though the author did their best to present it in a golden “so much better than the West” light, it was scary. And one of the scariest bits in there was that the Aztecs didn’t see things (people, animals, trees, what have you) as set and knowable objects, like the Western Platonic concept of an ideal form, but rather as processes of transformation.
I grant you I’m only an armchair philosopher at best. But to me that has made a massive difference in society, law, and ethics between the two cultures. To be brief – it’s the difference between the West, which ideally values each individual life, and the Aztecs, who practiced human sacrifice on such a scale it appalled battle-hardened conquistadors.
If every living person is a reflection of an ideal Man or Woman, then their death is, at the very least, a further imperfection inflicted on that ideal, and so something to be avoided. Without getting into souls or morality, a person’s identity as a unique incarnation of that ideal Form and essence means their death destroys something that cannot be replaced. In this philosophy each and every living being and species is a valuable and precious thing, simply because it has come into existence. What is unmade by death or human interference cannot be made again; not without sacrifices and power so great, only a deity might bear them.
In contrast, the Aztec belief in beings-as-transformation makes human sacrifice – and in this story massive genetic manipulation – terrifyingly easy. If a person or species is not a set thing in its own right, but only a temporary state before it transforms into something else… then it’s not unique. It’s not irreplaceable. And killing it, or twisting its DNA, is just another transformation from living flesh to something that decays to give rise to other things, alive and dead.
So I definitely have to give kudos to the author for worldbuilding. He picked a philosophical background for his gene-manipulators that makes sense, given what they supposedly believed and did that created the current horrible mess of that world. The world itself creeps me out, but the foundation is solid.
Which is what makes that “missing page of motivation” gap for Enoch switching sides so frustrating. I wanted to see him wrestle with what he wanted versus what he knew was right.
…I also think the forces arrayed to take out one kid Pensanden even years after they’re all supposed to be gone seem like horrendous overkill, but hey, heroic SF, that’s kind of a given.
All told, a neat if scary book; I just wish it’d had that little bit of wrestling with motivation to bring the characters fully to life.