Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Tuesday, September 29, 2015: Maximum Shelf: Our Lady of the Ice

Saga Press: Our Lady of the Ice by Cassandra Rose Clarke

Saga Press: Our Lady of the Ice by Cassandra Rose Clarke

Saga Press: The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu

Saga Press: Silver on the Road by Laura Anne Gilman

Our Lady of the Ice

by Cassandra Rose Clarke

It's Last Night in Hope City, Antarctica. The last night before winter, one more evening of revelry before the citizens batten down for the long, cold night to come. Once an amusement park for world's wealthiest, this Argentinian colony now produces nuclear energy for the mainland. It is protected by a dome that keeps the brutal Antarctic cold at bay and allows its residents to remain there year-round. The nuclear energy they produce is siphoned off to the mainland, while they themselves are forced to rely on outdated steam and coal to power the systems that make life in the dome possible. Winter means a temporary end to mainland supply shipments, a dry spell in an already meager trickle of luxury goods such as coffee, sugar and cigarettes. But on Last Night, the heat is turned up, the lights are left on, and the streets look more like Rio than the South Pole.

Dancing in the thick of the crowd are Diego and Eliana, a typical pair of Hope City natives trying to make the best of their brutal lot. Diego makes his living running errands for Ignacio Cabrera, the city's underworld kingpin. Eliana operates on the other side of the law--just barely. Diego likes to call her a cop, but she's a private detective. Most of her cases involve chasing down philandering husbands or runaway kids. She does her best to stay out of Cabrera's way, sticking to low-profile situations that won't get her noticed by the powers-that-be. Eliana has just one goal: to get out. There's a large Antarctic Independence movement in Hope City, with everyone from radical terrorists to politicians and philanthropists fighting in their own way for self-determination. Eliana is sympathetic, but her heart yearns to experience the life on the mainland, which she only knows from the films and TV shows of her childhood.

Not long after Last Night, a beautiful woman walks into Eliana's dingy office. Her business is delicate, she says, discreet. Like any PI worth her salt, Eliana responds that discretion is her speciality. The beautiful woman also happens to be famous: her name is Marianella Luna and she is a member of the Antarctican aristocracy well known for her support of the independence movement. She's come for help because some documents have been stolen from her home. Eliana takes the job, enticed by the exorbitant paycheck Marianella is offering: anyone can get a mainland visa and a ticket on an icebreaker during the Summer season--anyone who has a few thousand dollars to spare, that is, which Eliana decidedly does not. Of course, the job turns out to be more trouble than she could ever have expected. Eliana retrieves the documents, but manages to get entangled with Ignacio Cabrera in the process. Marianella has secretly built an agricultural dome that threatens Cabrera's monopoly on illicit winter imports. Those documents contain a secret that would spell the end of her project, and Cabrera was the one who had them stolen. He wants Marianella dead, and he goes as far as having his goons throw her out of the City to what should be a certain, quick death from exposure.

Cassandra Clarke's novel has all the markings of a classic noir thriller: gangsters and PIs, corrupt politicians and femmes fatales, yet this is more than Raymond Chandler with a sub-zero setting. Marianella doesn't die when Cabrera throws her out into the cold, because Marianella isn't human. She's a cyborg, a human-machine blend universally regarded as an abomination. Her closest companion is Luciano, an android who poses as her butler but is in fact a friend and confidant. Androids aren't a common sight in Hope City--they were a feature of its amusement park days, and the few who remain live in secret communities amid the abandoned roller-coasters and casinos, hiding from those who would dismantle them for their precious engineering. When Marianella flees there after Cabrera's assassination attempt, she learns that this seclusion is unlikely to be the case for very much longer. The robots are changing, from the simplest maintenance drones to complex humanoids like Luciano. They are evolving sentience and free will far beyond their programming, and they are not happy with the status quo. Their leader is an android named Sofia, once a dancer and comfort girl for amusement park clients, now determined to reclaim Hope City for robots, androids and cyborgs like Marianella.

There is a natural kinship between sci-fi dystopias and noir mysteries. They share a bleak view of human nature--these are tales where evil is chaotic and entropic, a feature of society rather than an aberration. All the characters, human and otherwise, are suffering from broken programming of one kind or another. Eliana feels displaced in the only home she's ever known. Sofia lacks agency over her own body due to the programming that made her a beautiful dancer and a docile lover. Diego is tortured by a feeling of indebtedness to the monstrous Cabrera, and Marianella feels rejected by both the human and android communities. When everyone is at their worst, even the most fallen have a shot at redemption. In Our Lady of the Ice, Cassandra Clarke uses old tropes to their very best effect, showcasing the chilling wisdom of genre fiction at its best. --Emma Page

Saga Press, $25.99, hardcover, 9781481444262, October 27, 2015

Saga Press: Miriam Black Series by Chuck Wendig

Cassandra Rose Clarke: Antarctic Android Noir

photo: Brittany Lincoln

Cassandra Rose Clarke grew up in south Texas and currently lives in a suburb of Houston, where she writes and teaches composition at a local college. Clarke's  first adult novel, The Mad Scientist's Daughter, was a finalist for the 2013 Philip K. Dick Award, and her YA novel, The Assassin's Curse, was nominated for YALSA's 2014 Best Fiction for Young Adults. Her short fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons and Daily Science Fiction.

When reading Our Lady of the Ice, it was clear to me that this was a book written by someone with a broad, deep knowledge of SF as a genre. How did you come to write science fiction? Do you have particular authors or sub-genres you love to read?

Like many of my generation, I came to science fiction via television and movies: usual suspects like Star Wars, Star Trek (especially The Next Generation) and The X-Files were some of my favorites. In high school I got into reading classic dystopias like The Handmaid's Tale, 1984 and Brave New World. Those books prompted an interest in written science fiction, and eventually I discovered Philip K. Dick, who is still one of my favorite old-school SF writers. I also love Margaret Atwood (of course), Ursula K. Le Guin, Madeline L'Engle, Tanith Lee, Kelly Link, Elizabeth Hand and about a billion more.

Our Lady of the Ice is in many ways a classic noir thriller with a sci-fi twist--did you set out to write a book about gangsters and PIs? What appeals to you about the genre of detective fiction?

When I was about 12 or 13, I went though a period where I was obsessed with Alfred Hitchcock movies and 1950s film noir in general. Something about the characters that populate those films--paranoid, worn-down men, secretive women-in-peril, femmes fatales--fascinated me. One of the things I wanted to do with Our Lady of the Ice was try to capture the magic of those old movies. So, yes, I definitely set out to write a book about gangsters and PIs!

In graduate school I read a piece of literary criticism for a modernism class--and I can't for the life of me remember who wrote it--but it was discussing Raymond Chandler's novels, and the critic pointed out that the detectives in those books have access to all strata of social classes in their society. And that was a fascinating idea to me, and another thing I wanted to explore in Our Lady. That access lets the story reveal conflicts in social class that might not otherwise be clear. And I think that quality of detective fiction also explains why hard-boiled detective stories work so well with androids and AI. After all, I'm certainly not the first person to pair up robots and hardboiled detectives (the webcomic Penny Arcade did it with a great miniseries called Automata, and Asimov's robot books are all mysteries, too). But I think it's such a classic combination because robot stories, at their best, raise moral issues that parallel so many of the moral issues in hardboiled fiction. What makes a man into a monster? Who gets treated fairly by society, and who doesn't?

Beyond geographic proximity, why did you choose to give the Antarctic settlement of Hope City an Argentinian flavor?

Honestly, geographic proximity was a big reason for my choice. It just made sense--I mean, the first person born in Antarctica was an Argentine citizen. However, I was also interested in showing a world where the U.S. and Western Europe weren't the dominant economic forces. I thought it was a chance to give someone else a chance in the spotlight.

I'm not sure how much the story itself would change if I had made Hope City a U.S./European settlement, but I'm certain we would see some strong differences in the characters.

The book is full of morally ambiguous characters, but I think the one I found the most interesting was Luciano, an android originally programmed to serve as a butler and assistant to humans. What can you tell me about him? Why does he read? In what ways is he fundamentally different from Sofia?

With the android characters, I was really interested in seeing how they would evolve as they developed sentience. I imagined that each android would evolve in a different way, based on their programming and what they'd done when they'd been installed in the amusement park.

One of the biggest differences between Luciano and Sofia is that Luciano is less angry, because his dealings with humans weren't as violating. And so he's interested in humans, whereas Sofia wants nothing to do with them. That's why he strikes up a friendship with Eliana, and also why he reads--he's curious to know how humans think. It's left over, I imagine, from his programming. As a butler he was programmed to be able to preemptively know what humans needed from him. Now, even though he doesn't have to be a butler anymore, the programming is still there. But he doesn't resent it the way Sofia does. So his programming creates in him this curiosity about humanity that he likes to investigate on his own.

It's clear that the androids in Our Lady do not think or operate like humans, and yet certain parts of their programming oblige them to act like us. How does that relate to gender? Do you feel that Sofia is a woman in the same way Eliana and Marianella are?

This is such a good question, and it's one that I thought about a lot, especially as I developed Sofia and Marianella's relationship. I'm not sure I have a totally satisfactory answer, though! All the androids were programmed to have a gender beyond just their physical form. But is that programmed gender identity "real" in the way Eliana and Marianella's gender identity is real? I'm not sure I know.

What did it mean to you to include a relationship between two women in the novel? Particularly between a cyborg and an android?

It was important to me, purely for representational reasons. Marianella's bisexuality in particular was very personal, especially the push-pull with her Catholicism. In a way, her cyborg nature mirrors her bisexuality (although of course it's not a perfect comparison). But as a cyborg she feels pressured to "pick a side," which is something that bi- and pansexual people often feel pressured to do. It wasn't something that happened on purpose, but I definitely saw the parallels when I read back through the book. It was interesting writing the relationship because I did sometimes wonder if Sofia is attracted to Marianella because Marianella is a woman, or because she's a cyborg, and therefore not human. I'm not sure I ever reached a real conclusion about it.

How do you walk the line between "humanizing" the androids as characters and demonstrating their fundamentally alien nature?

It was difficult! I was always worried that I was making them too human, that they wouldn't come across as androids at all. One thing I did consider was how each android's specific programming would affect their personality as they evolved into sentience. So the androids all have certain personality elements that are exaggerated, or a little too extreme--just enough to set them apart. It was a bit like taking the idea of the uncanny valley (which argues that the closer an android looks to a human being, the more repulsed we are by it) and applying it to character traits. I feel like the physical aspect of androids, which is what the uncanny valley is focused on, isn't the only thing that will feel uncanny about them. And yet they do have personalities, which at the same time helps humanize them. At least, that was the idea! --Emma Page

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