Recent Reading: Cry Pilot by Joel Dane

Okay, so, Cry Pilot is military SF, but wow, is it atypical.

I mean, sure, Cry Pilot ticks off a lot of boxes – a young protagonist going through military training, what could be more typical of military SF, obviously – but the world surrounding the protagonist is so distinctive that the whole story steps sideways into a subgenre that shares space with dystopian SF rather than space opera.

It’s not exactly a dystopian future. Not exactly. Or probably it’s not a true dystopia. It’s more that the parts we see are not the nicer bits, and the government or quasi-government in charge is probably pretty oppressive, although it’s hard to tell just how oppressive in daily life for ordinary people. Probably not that much?

The setting: So, Earth has been ecologically devastated. Not by anything as utterly cliched as global warming, so that’s a major plus; nope, much more believably, by large-scale war fought by, get this, semi-autonomous weapons cyborged with enough biological components that they possessed instinctive drives to achieve their objectives and could self-repair. Because what could go wrong with that, right? So evidently during the course of a lot of trouble and warfare, all global ecosystems were completely ruined. All this is way in the past.

Now the ecosystems are being repaired via a process called not terraforming, but terrafixing (I love that term), a process which utilizes autonomous processes to resurrect long-extinct animals and plants. This is a creepy process that we never see at close range, plus the terrafixing processes constantly uncover long-defunct bioweapons, mistake them for legitimate plants or animals, and resurrect them in new and novel forms. This, needless to say, causes a certain amount of trouble. It is these “remorts” that occupy many soldiers. The basic problem faced in this book is a new kind of remort which is nigh-unto-unstoppable and looking like it might turn into an extinction-level problem.

Other things besides remorts also occupy soldiers, such as putting down any patriot group or any religion that shows signs of becoming too important to people. Because the government here is, at least on the surface, as far as we can tell, a sort of diffuse entity consisting of somewhat ruthless but possibly somewhat altruistic and competent corporations. I must say, I have certain questions about this rectitude of this government. Our protagonist does not seem to. There’s a particular sentence produced unironically near the end of the book – I’ll give you enough of a lead-in for context –

… And I’d light the world on fire for Rana, for Ting, for Jag and M’bari and Shakrabarti. Even for Cali. Hell, especially for Cali. That’s a dangerous, small-minded way to live. It’s the path of the insurgent, the nationalist; it’s the creed of patriots who only care about their own little tribe. That’s how the SICLE War started, with a loyal, loving urge that would’ve destroyed the world if the rational stewardship of the corporations hadn’t saved us.

Uh huh. Those rational corporations, such wise stewards. Our protagonist, Maseo Kaytu, does appear to believe this. I think he does. He seems to be a pretty honest narrator, so if he’s unreliable, it’s because he only sees and knows a certain slice of the world. He’s had enough to think about in his life without questioning official verities. Plus for various reasons he’s invested in believing that The Corporations Know Best. I imagine that like me, many readers may suspect there’s more to that story. Especially with the ruthlessness of the corporations on full display from time to time.

Okay, so, good things:

a) The world is built as much with flavor as it is with concrete details. I mean, it’s not lacking in concrete details; but there’s so much and nearly all of it is out of sight. One thing Joel Dane does extremely well is convey the flavor of the world without ever stopping to dump information on the reader. A paragraph of history now and then, occasionally a bit of a flashback, but so much is left unsaid that the wider world remains somewhat out of focus. We know that some time ago three AIs uplifted, did a lot of mysterious stuff, and apparently committed suicide. (Or did they? I immediately wonder.) We know that faster-than-light travel is still considered impossible but there are ships out in space. Called Flensers. Evocative name, but we’re not sure why they’re out there or what they do. We know that everyone lives in immense urban high rises, the kind that are sometimes called arcologies, and that there is nothing left of any natural ecosystem. We know that foods are synthetic. We know there’s a vast, vast gulf between the haves and the have-nots. There’s a lot we know, but the reader is going to be very aware that there’s so much more.

b) The protagonist. Maseo Kaytu is an interesting guy with an interesting backstory. Ting is a super-interesting character with a super-interesting problem. Gift. Curse. Whatever. You can do weird and wonderful things with genesplicing, I guess. I like all the people on Kaytu’s team. They’re pretty one-dimensional, but they’re really well-drawn one-dimensional characters. Quick, snappy dialogue.

c) The plotting is good. I mean, there aren’t any really WOW DIDN’T SEE THAT COMING twists, but it keeps you turning the pages. I would have been disappointed if certain things hadn’t fallen into place, but they did, so that was fine. Various characters die, including one I rather liked, but this is military science fiction, after all.

d) Nice style, both somewhat gritty and decidedly poetic, often both at the same time. As here:

A neurosurgeon sprays me into thera-sleep on the transport from Belo City. I lose myself in anxious dreams, then wake on a mattress made of starlight and hope. The medical devices around me purr reassuringly, like angels humming a lullaby.

Less great things:

a) First-person present-tense narratives are never going to be my favorite. If the style is well done, I get used to it and it doesn’t get in the way, much. Joel Dane did a fine job with that style and with Kaytu’s voice.

b) If we paused the action for a long exploration of the ecological situation, that would be great. I’m aware not everyone necessarily feels like pausing for a good look out the window at the natural scenery when reading a tense military story, but I was dying to know more about the actual results of the terrafixing. I gather people can’t actually live out in the new ecosystems, at least not yet.

c) Honestly, no, that’s it. There isn’t anything to point at as a real flaw to this story, just features that might or might not appeal to a specific reader. I liked it a lot and I expect I’ll go on with the second book, though perhaps not until the third comes out, which will evidently be in July.

I’ll note in passing that this novel got a good review from Sherwood Smith on Goodreads and has a laudatory quote from CJ Cherryh inside the cover.

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