Masks: a Review of Elizabeth Bear’s Carnival

Writing political fiction is difficult. It’s easy to reduce debate to liberal and conservative, large or small government, progress or status quo. It’s also tempting to beat the reader over the head with your own views and use the bully pulpit of the story to attack the opposition. Humanizing two factions and giving the reader sympathy for both perspectives takes a deft hand. Elizabeth Bear manages this quite well in Carnival, a sci-fi trip to a future when humanity is greatly changed, and spread out over the stars, but where too many of our sad divisions remain. Even in futurist, fictional societies, it’s easy for an author to take sides and Bear wisely creates characters at conflict with their respective societies, making it hard to know whose side they, and she, are on. Every one in this novel is wearing at least one mask. It’s high intrigue with astronomical and very personal stakes for the point of view characters.

Carnival’s plot builds slowly, and I didn’t mind the simmer as Bear’s conflict came to a boil on the jungle world of New Amazonia. Two diplomats from the Old Earth Coalition find themselves on a world where women have inverted the power structure. Women rule and men are a lesser caste. Sinead O’Connor once said that the “opposite of patriarchy is not matriarchy, but fraternity,” and Bear reinforces this idea by clearly demonstrating that the society of New Amazonia has as many flaws as the patriarchy the separatist women left behind.

One of the first things I noticed was the complexity of Bear’s universe. It took me a while to sort through the factions, characters, and loyalties. The technological vocabulary of the Coalition diplomats slowed me down. This was part of the fun, being a tourist in an alien society, but it made Carnival a book you can’t just casually read. This one takes some focus, but it is well worth the time. The book is thoughtful, and it turned my mind towards a number of topics I don’t regularly consider. Bear invests the conflict with a good amount of gender study, and I was impressed by the time she took to work out how a matriarchal warrior society would handle issues of reproduction, the rights of males, and status. I had questions as I read, and her characters addressed most of them over the course of the novel.

Once the plot heats up, the philosophical consideration gets pushed aside and things move very quickly. In this sense, it was like reading two books, one with a more considered tempo and a second with a strong action beat. I personally preferred the first part, though I can’t deny that the latter section was more of a page turner. The only real difficulty in reading was the exposure to two cultures, not simply one. The reader is transported with the diplomats into the world of New Amazonia, but it took the course of the novel for me to understand where the diplomats were coming from and for the opposing viewpoints to become clear.

Bear’s use of technology, both Amazon and Coalition, was well-conceived. These are interesting and more colorful than the average space opera. The relationship of the technology to the character fit their background and loyalty. She imbues her characters with appropriate prejudices, based upon their side in the conflict, and these come through, enriching the characters and the story world.

In many ways, Carnival isn’t an easy journey. You’re being exposed to a confusing foreign culture, and you don’t speak the language, but if you’re up for a little adventure outside the normal light reading, it’s well worth the trip.

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