Pyr hardcover - 499 pages
Copyright 2006 (originally published in the U.K. in 1998)
Cover art by Jim Burns
Book reviewed February 2007
Rating: 8/10 (Highly Recommended)
Review by Aaron Hughes
"This is the time to aim for - that moment of feeling utterly stuck, the feeling which always precedes enlightenment."
- John Meaney, To Hold Infinity
To Hold Infinity by John Meaney is an example of everything Pyr Books is getting right. In only two years, Pyr has become one of the most reliable publishers of high-quality science fiction in the market. Editor Lou Anders consistently produces well-packaged books of real literary merit that are also very entertaining. While it has published plenty of excellent original work, a key to Pyr's success has been obtaining reprint rights to outstanding British and Australian authors who have been neglected in the U.S.
Pyr introduced British Boomer John Meaney to American readers with the Nulapeiron Sequence - Paradox, Context, and Resolution - and is now backtracking to Meaney's first novel, To Hold Infinity. Do not be put off by the fact that To Hold Infinity is a first novel. This is a very well-written book, a deserving nominee for the British Science Fiction Association Award for Best Novel of 1998.
As an aside, in importing authors like John Meaney, Pyr has avoided the common mistake of reprinting their books without the original cover art (think of those great Josh Kirby covers left off the U.S. releases of Terry Pratchett's Discworld series). Pyr acquired the rights to all the striking Jim Burns covers for Meaney's books. Yet Pyr has commissioned new art when the original covers were not as strong, for example for its forthcoming edition of Gradisil by Adam Roberts.
To Hold Infinity combines a mystery/thriller plot with a far-future science fictional setting. It's not quite post-singularity science fiction, but at least near-singularity.
The story takes place on the world of Fulgar, a highly advanced green-skied planet dominated by a ruling class called the Luculenti. The Luculenti have built a fabulously wealthy society on the strength of their implanted digital "plexcores," which give them mental capacities that are superhuman but not infallible. Meaney allows us glimpses of how the Luculenti communicate, often transmitting to one another not just words but images, sounds, smells, esthetic sensations, and sometimes raw computer code.
The portrayal of Luculentus culture is a great strength of To Hold Infinity. The underlying technology is fascinating, and Meaney manages to make the Luculenti seem very strange and advanced yet at the same time fundamentally human. He also explores the huge class barrier (always a prominent concern of British authors) between the Luculenti and other Fulgari, but without overdoing it. It is clear that the Luculenti are exploiting the common Fulgari to a degree, but Meaney also shows much to admire in Luculentus society, particularly their incredible artistic achievements.
The primary protagonist is Yoshiko Sunadomari, pictured on the front cover, a brilliant (by Earth standards) scientist visiting Fulgar. Yoshiko is intimidated by the Luculenti, but manages to befriend several of them quickly. Yoshiko is 60 years old and starting to feel it, even though she remains well-toned in body and mind thanks in part to her daily shugyo martial arts training. Yoshiko was recently widowed and is bitterly conscious of her husband's absence. She has traveled to Fulgar to see her adult son Tetsuo, only to find him missing and the target of a police investigation that soon uncovers a dead body on his property. Ironically, the need to aid Tetsuo helps Yoshiko to shake off her grief over the loss of her husband.
One advantage Yoshiko has is that her scientific work was important to the development of faster-than-light space travel. This has made her a heroine to the Pilots, a mysterious group of altered humans who are the only people able to steer spaceships through the fractal dimensions (whatever that means) of mu-space. The Pilots are one of several story elements in To Hold Infinity that call to mind Frank Herbert's Dune universe. The Pilots also appear in Meaney's Nulapeiron Sequence, suggesting that To Hold Infinity is set in the same universe as those books, even though this story is entirely independent.
There are two secondary point-of-view characters. The first is Yoshiko's son Tetsuo. Tetsuo has gone into hiding in the supposedly deserted hypozone, the area of the planet not yet terraformed, only to be captured by the stern race of Shadow People, humans who have learned to live in this hostile environment. (Did I mention there are some similarities to the Dune universe? Not a bad model to emulate, eh?)
The other point-of-view character is Rafael de la Vega, a Luculentus who is brilliant and dynamic but also a mass murderer. He has developed predatory code that allows him to mind-rape fellow Luculenti, absorbing their memories in a process that destroys the original mind, although he is not above killing the old-fashioned way for a change of pace. He has also figured out how to use mu-space technology acquired from Tetsuo to expand his mind well beyond the usual Luculentus parameters - Luculenti can fit at most three plexcore brains in their heads; Rafael has 103 plexcores, geographically dispersed yet in constant FTL communication. Rafael believes that subsuming the personalities of a few more Luculenti will enable him to transcend ordinary human thought.
Rafael is about as evil a character as you will meet in literature, yet it becomes clear early on that he is not the one who chased Tetsuo into hiding and left a murdered body at his home. Meaney drops delicious hints that there are larger forces at work. A power-mad serial killer is only one of Yoshiko's obstacles to saving her son.
Yoshiko is a sympathetic and wonderfully drawn character, equal parts strong and vulnerable. The sections involving Rafael provide effective thrills, including one powerful scene of mass destruction that I did not see coming. Tetsuo's scenes are also of interest, although he is not quite so compelling a character as Yoshiko and Rafael, and the Shadow People society he encounters is not fleshed out as well as the Luculentus culture.
The only giveaway that To Hold Infinity is a first novel is Meaney's tendency to belabor points. For instance, here is a description of Yoshiko's first visit inside a Luculentus home:
The carpet began to flow, carrying Yoshiko and Vin past abstract paintings, past swarming holos and breathtaking calligraphy, until an endless stream of priceless artwork was flowing by, too quickly to be appreciated. The long labor of unenhanced humans. Did the owners of all this wealth appreciate it?
The phrase "too quickly to be appreciated" subtly makes the point in which the last line then rubs the reader's nose. Thankfully, this occasional tendency does not detract from the story. For example, Meaney dwells a bit awkwardly on how much Yoshiko misses her husband, but nonetheless nicely manages to juxtapose Yoshiko's ambivalence about what to do with the rest of her life with the aimlessness of Luculentus society.To Hold Infinity is an absorbing story peopled with well-developed characters and loaded with interesting speculation about the future. Fans of the Nulapeiron books should not miss it, and I strongly recommend it to new readers as a great introduction to John Meaney.
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Copyright © 2007 Aaron Hughes
Bantam Books UK -1998
cover art by Jim Burns
554 pages (right)