Chasm City Book Club Part II: Race to the Future

Spoilers through chapter sixteen of Chasm City appear below the jump, but as usual, please don’t spoil beyond that. The first installment of the book club appears here. Let’s go through chapter 26 for next week.

Noir’s an interesting genre, with its basis in the assumption that the main characters are denying emotions that the readers are quicker to realize they have than the characters are to acknowledge that they’re experiencing them. Successful noir may take a complicated path to that acknowledgement, and it may be momentary, but that wellspring absolutely has to be there for the story to work.

I think much of the trouble I’m having with Chasm City comes from the fact that I can’t find the wellspring here. Our nun, Amelia, doesn’t want much more than to be left alone. Tanner wants revenge for the death of a woman who is a sort of depressingly passive and semi-incompetent version of a manic pixie dream girl. The person he’s trying to kill obviously experiences profound emotions of revenge, but we don’t even have a glimpse of him yet. And there’s not a lot about this society that feels terrifically compelling. As Tanner says at one point:

We knew what could be achieved, but we lacked the time or resources to duplicate what had been achieved elsewhere, or the planetary finances to buy off-the-shelf miracles from passing traders. Teh only occasions when we bought any new technologies was when they had some direct military application, and even then it almost bankrupted us. Instead, we fought centuries-long wars with infantry, tanks, jet fighters, chemical bombs and crude nuclear devices; only rarely graduating to such giddy heights as particle-weapons or nanotech-inspired gadetry. No wonder the Ultras had treated us with such ill-concealed contempt. We were savages compared to them, and the hardest thing of all was the fact that we knew it to be true.

As cynical as it is, it’s not actually cynical enough. It’s not time or resources that’s stunted this society—it’s will and priorities. I don’t know why I’m supposed to care about about these brutish people. I’d like to spend more time with the Ultras, but that’s not what I’m getting.

Much of the rest of the society we’re spending time with feels similarly tired. The mist-jumpers take horrendous risks because they’re bored. The other residents of the Canopy hunt people from the Mulch in increasingly complicated games, but they seem sort of lackidasical about it. There’s nothing exceptional noble about the folks we encounter down in the Mulch: the kid who drives the rickshaw is reasonably nice, but there’s nothing so compelling about that society that it feels worth defending against the depradations of the Canopy.

I think part of the problem with the shallowness of these depictions is that the alternate narrative we’re getting suggests something enormously momentous. Sky Haussmann’s supposed to be some sort of villain, but at this point, he’s the only person who’s connected to higher-level emotions and events. If there’s going to be a spectacular downfall, there has to be some sense of spectacular promise, right? But I don’t understand what’s so fraught about this mission that the saboteur would be planted in the ship, and from what we see of the world that Haussmann’s mission gave us, it’s hard to retain any sense of hope that their mission was ever worth it.