In the Cube

The Future Boston series continues.

Raw Feed (1994): In the Cube, David Alexander Smith, 1993.In the Cube

Another excellent installment in the shared universe of Future Boston, the same series that produced Alexander Jablokov’s  “The Place of No Shadows” and the pretty good “The Egg” (expanded as Slow Lightning) by Steven Popkes.

Like both those stories, the stars of this novel are the setting of Boston circa 2081 (the other stories are set in other times) and the very well done aliens. (Here Smith credits Sarah W. R. Smith with helping keeping the Phneri truly alien. I don’t know if she helped with the aliens in the other stories).

Boston is sinking into the sea and is an interstellar port. Most of Boston is in an arcology – the Cube of the title – heavily infused and dependent on alien biotechnology, most of it supplied by the never-seen, sinister Targive (mentioned in other stories including another Jablokov story where they take center stage). The Targives do alterations of minds for the price of performing their own choice of mental and/or physical alterations.

Here the main alien race covered is the Phneri. At first they seem like cute, anthropomorphic beavers with strange speech (they have trouble with verb tenses) patterns and superb imitative talents. One Phneri, Akktri, is the alien partner of private detective Beverly O’Meara.

However, there are dark rumors of them dismembering children, and they were used by Iris Sherwood to blow out the walls of the Cube’s “basement” during the Siege of 2061 (when Boston won its independence from the US) – an act she’s reviled for. (Exactly why she did this is never explained which I found the novel’s biggest flaw – but perhaps it’s covered in the Future Boston anthology).

Human reaction to the aliens in their midst runs from feelings of worship or inferiority to prejudice in the case of the Phneri. The Phneri also have superb powers to reconstruct the past from left over traces. These are presumably chemical and physical but this ability, like their racial group mind and ability to mix future visions with the past, isn’t very rational or scientific, but then aliens in sf are rarely constructed to show a certain scientific principle at work; they are constructed to be alien, to provide another perspective on humanity.

They can imitate and reconstruct 40 year old events on a street corner or construct perfect imitations of art. They have no words to distinguish “original” and “copy”. They love things with history. Yet they also have a disturbing love of violence, hunting, and are death obsessed.

Their central tenet of philosophy seems to be we are all dead already; they speak of life as art to be examined in the ritual of “esfn” or speak of killing someone when their “art is complete”, when their life satisfies their peculiar aesthetic sense. It is a process of appreciating a person’s life, savoring their ”art”, auditing their past, remembering them.  They are also a race bearing the terrible memory of slavery before a starship dumped them above Boston Harbor.  Altogether, they are fascinating, funny, disturbing and definitely alien, and the best part of this novel.

The plot itself is a well-done mystery involving the disappearance of Sherwood’s daughter, and O’Meara’s search for her. The plot suffers a bit from excessive neatness in that Smith tries to have everyone personally (with the exception of O’Meara’s brother) or politically involved in the mystery.

Part of that problem comes from Smith imposing a “literary” structure on the story, i.e. a central theme played out in several variations throughout the plot. Here the theme is troubled family relations, specifically parent-child ones.

O’Meara has to come to terms with her father’s death in the Siege (she initially blames Sherwood for this but eventually realizes it was his fault entirely), and the fact she loved and disliked him.

Diana Sherwood tries to embarrass and discredit her mother Iris in a fake kidnap scheme which ends up getting Iris killed. Only then does Diana begin to appreciate that Iris poured her guilt and love into Diana after the terrible actions she took in the Siege and during the years when Iris rigorously tried to rule the Cube and avoid being corrupted by her power.

Hu Nyo, member of the very wealthy Nyo merchant family, plays games of intrigue and power and subterfuge with her grandmother Mi Nyo  – a family that constantly is testing each other for worthiness and shows little affection.

Christopher Tolliver, a character from “The Place of No Shadows”, is here shown later.  In Jablokov’s story, he, along with another professor, were seeking for a path for humans to tread in a universe of strange and often superior aliens. Here he exists on the periphery of xenophobic politics.

A good novel with the best aliens I’ve come across in years.


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