Undertow by Elizabeth Bear

BearUndertowWhy I Read It: I love Elizabeth Bear‘s fantasy novels, so it was time to try her scifi.

Where I Got It: the library.

Who I Recommend This To: Folks who want to sink into an alien culture on an alien planet and watch the humans struggle along.

Narrator: Timothy Reynolds

Publisher: Recorded Books (2008)

Length: 11 hours 13 minutes

In a galaxy where nearly all humans have implants that allow them to access the collective net at will, Cricket makes a good living on Novo Haven gathering secreted information. Even memories can be accessed (shudder). Her sometimes lover, Andre, kills people, humanely and quickly, for a living. though he isn’t very open about that. Jean is a sorcerer of a kind, affecting Chance, making unlikely outcomes blossom into being. He is also one of the few humans who has taken the time to get to know the native sentient species, the Rannids (often called the Froggies). A series of events surrounding the questionable mining of a valuable resource brings the world close to destruction.

While this book took a little while to get into, I definitely appreciated the build up once the plot began to unfold. Cyberpunk meets alien suppression and exploitation meets assassin meets turning on a chance. Indeed, this tale brought together several tropes and spat out something unique and highly memorable. Told mostly from Andre’s point of view, and an interesting view it is, we see his impersonal approach to his job, assassinating folks. He also has a somewhat impersonal approach to his love life with Cricket. But then things change, and get weird, and very cool. The Charter Trade Company wants folks dead, a valuable mineral mined and off planet before anyone notices, and doesn’t care who gets injured along the way. That includes a good friend of Cricket’s and the Jean’s lover.

The Rannids are introduced bit by bit giving the reader time to get to know them. They think differently, and hence, their actions don’t always make sense to their human overlords. They have no visible sign of advanced civilization, which has left Charter Trade Company legally able to exploit them and remove the planet’s resources. But they are far more complex, able to communicate world wide through vibrations in the water, treasuring stories. Humans have many stories in many forms, and so many Rannids learn to read human lips (lacking the natural auditory equipment to hear human speech) in order to enjoy these stories.

Jean, in introducing Andre to these planet natives, may not only save Andre’s retched existence but also the planet. Jean is a Conjurer, a man who can and does affect chance outcomes. Andre has this latent ability in himself but lacks the training, and the mindset. I found Andre’s storyline the most fascinating because he starts off the least human (psychologically) and grows so much as a character by the end of the book. Listening to the culture of the Rannids unfold bit and bit as Andre would learn of them piece by piece kept me coming back for just one more chapter before bed.

Timothy Reynolds was a great choice of narrator, giving Andre’s voice precision, upper class tones, and that assassin’s detachment. His female voices were decent and his Rannid voices were unique from other voices.

What I Liked: Alien culture; assassin psychology; character growth; lots of cool tech; not everyone walks away scar-free.

What I Didn’t Like: There were a lot of concepts crammed into a single book and occasionally, it felt a little crowded.

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