Cobwebbed Solar System

Metaplanetary — Tony Daniel
Metaplanetary, book 1


Tony Daniel’s 2001 novel Metaplanetary was the first volume in a trilogy. It was followed in 2004 by Superluminal, which was followed in turn by … nothing. For some reason—not, as far as I can recall, for poor sales—Eos declined to publish the final volume in the series. Having read both novels in the existing series (in the wrong order, an approach I cannot recommend), I can authoritatively report that every strength and weakness in Metaplanetary was present in greater degree in Superluminal. Whether that means you should buy both books depends on how you feel about Daniel’s particular strengths and weaknesses.

The (almost) 31 st century! A time when the worlds of the inner solar system are connected by the Met, a vast network of cables unlimited by any particular plausibility! A time when advances in cognitive technology have allowed people to translate their minds from fleshy substrates to software, to link a myriad of bodies with one mind, and to reshape minds like clay! A time when all the tools exist to allow one visionary in the right place to forge all people into one vast, godlike super-organism!

Unfortunately for everyone in the Solar System, that visionary is a sadistic and bigoted musician named Ames. Even worse, the crisis of 2993 gave him the political power needed to put his grand plan into action. As the book opens, he has spent years securing his control over the inner system. The people of the Met have either been bullied into submission or serve as Ames’ willing minions. Only the outer system has managed to evade his reach. Hence the grand invasion fleet that is heading out past the Asteroid Belt.

While there are vast and powerful entities living out in the Oort Cloud, these nigh-godlike cloudships are not much interested in trivial events within the orbit of Pluto. The more mundane peoples of the moons of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune have no choice but to pay attention to Ames and his machinations, since they are his next targets. They are ill-prepared to resist Ames’ powerful legions. One by one, worlds fall, leaving only a few redoubts.

We see the early stages of the war from the points of view of tortured prisoners like Danis Graytor and desperate refugees like Danis’ husband Kelly. We meet resistance fighters like Kelly, Danis’ daughter Aubry, and Aubry’s mentor Jill. We are introduced to senior officers on both sides. Finally, we meet the despicable Ames, the ultimate Bad Boss.

On the plus side, the plethora of viewpoint characters allows Daniel to show us his grand conflict from all directions. On the minus side, it means the page-space available to develop any given character of them is limited. I had the sense that the author had more characters than he really knew how handle.

People familiar with other Daniel works, works such as the novelette “A Dry Quiet War,” won’t be surprised to hear that Daniel garnishes his novel with motivational episodes of rape. One of Ames’ smirking minions mind-rapes Danis; Ames subjects subordinates who fail him to beatings that definitely have a sexual element for Ames. Indeed, one can read the war as Ames’ effort to rape the whole Solar System. Daniel, like too many other authors, seems to use sexual assault as plot parsley. Some readers may find that kind of thing rewarding. I, and many other readers, loath it. We don’t even want to hear why you like that shit, if you do; please do not share [1].

Happily, there is a distraction from all this rape. That is watching Daniel construct a vast and detailed Solar System with world-building skills that fall entertainingly short of the mark. Some authors might conceal implausibility by describing their worlds in cautious, allusive terms that would allow the readers to fill in the missing details, presumably in ways that would make what they are told about the setting plausible. (Or possible. I’d settle for possible!) Such authorial canniness is beyond Daniel, who clearly loves his tinker toy-solar system with a joy beyond reason (also beyond the ability of editor and publisher to control it). Daniel hurls great infodumps at his readers, just as Talos hurled boulders at the Argo. While this means that the plot is continually grinding to a halt for yet another lecture filled with quantum this and grist that, at least the reader will understand the setting—perhaps even better than they would like.

When he remembers he is writing a war novel, Daniels shows some skill at action scenes; people die and ships explode quite satisfactorily. Various heroic and antiheroic figures boldly stride to and fro like a grand conclave of Miles Gloriousus cosplayers, which would be very entertaining if these figures were not invariably knocked off their feet in mid-bombast by yet another tumbling infodump careening across the stage.

Given the events of the first two novels, I can make an educated guess as to how this would have worked out in the third, unpublished volume of the trilogy. Daniel calls this conflict a civil war, but he seems to be modeling it on World War Two [2]. Ames has a much greater degree of control over his state than the autocrats of Eurasia had over theirs, which is an advantage when one wants to get everyone in a state pointed in the same direction. It is a terrible disadvantage when the guy at the top is a megalomaniac who not only makes bad decisions, but who is also violently opposed to hearing constructive criticism. Perhaps the last volume would have ended something like this oft-parodied bunker scene.

This novel, the first in the planned trilogy, is for the most part a set-up for the war. My notes on Superluminal suggest it has the usual middle-volume-in-a-trilogy issues. Metaplanetary and Superluminal are still available for purchase, but readers should buy them only if they are willing to put up with never learning how the story turns out. Think of it as an opportunity to express personal creativity and invent your own ending.

1: I started tracking this sort of thing in the books I am sent for review. In about a third of the books sent to me, the author had run out of ideas at some point and said to theirself, “Oh, a female character—I’d better have someone rape her.” There have been unpleasant stretches when the “rape someone to spice up the plot” fraction was much higher than a third. At least the time when I got almost four dozen books in a row with gratuitous rape-seasoning seems to have been a one-off.

You may think I am joking but I am not.

2: Generally the only two modern wars SF authors reliably know of are the American Civil War and World War Two, with the Napoleonic Wars a possible third if it happens the author likes sailing ships. (Obviously, veterans of other wars can be relied on to have noticed whichever war or wars it was they served in).

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