Following the resounding success of my Locus Quest, I faced a dilemma: which reading list to follow it up with? Variety is the spice of life, so I’ve decided to diversify and pursue six different lists simultaneously. This book falls into my GIFTS AND GUILTY list.
Regardless of how many books are already queued patiently on my reading list, unexpected gifts and guilt-trips will always see unplanned additions muscling their way in at the front.
I’ve never hit the Goodreads character limit for a review before now.
Ripples in an Emerald Sea, is a unique, fascinating and deeply frustrating book. I had never read a self-published book before this one. I know it’s considered the ‘next big thing’ – but I’ve been living in the past, catching up on the best sci-fi and fantasy books of the last thirty years – I’ve not paid much attention to the way traditional publishing models are changing. If it weren’t for Goodreads, Kindles and Smashwords I wouldn’t have had this opportunity - and however many issues I go on to highlight with Ripples, I am genuinely very pleased to have read this book.
Before I settled down and became a devoted family man with a steady job in finance, I used to be an academic-hippy-artsy type with a degree in scriptwriting and did time as a film script editor in the big city. Once you put your editing hat on during a read, I swear, it’s impossible to take it back off.
I can see why Ripples would be rejected by a publishing company. It’s prickly. It’s odd. It doesn’t fit any marketing niche. But it’s also got a strong, original voice and some enthralling, multilayered world building. There’s a great deal of potential here.
Let’s start with the premise: Lya is a ‘provost’ (think Military Police Detective). She’s a newly graduated, top of her class, perfectionist. Lya is on her first assignment and she’s been sent to the planet Illendum to investigate a suicide, possibly linked to thefts from army stores. ‘The Alliance Military’ Lya works for is the most powerful force in the galaxy. They have neural-nets to connect their minds directly to their equipment (and each other) and run real-time combat analyses. They have femtobots (nanotech) which repair damage to their body insanely fast, making them very difficult to kill (and grant eternal youth). They have training programs which instil them with a thousand years of pseudo-experience in warfare. The ‘A-M’ are hardcore, and Lya is one of their best and brightest. But Lya has a secret – she’s found a way to duplicate her personality into her neural-net – she’s got a mind-twin called Aerie who operates autonomously. Aerie handles all of Lya’s interactions with the net, interfacing with the army base artificial intelligences (called Genies), hacking into files, etc, leaving Lya free to focus on ‘piloting’ their body. The situation on Illendum is unlike anything Lya was expecting. The A-M were meant to be there on a peacekeeping mission – but the base is an abysmal state, discipline has gone to hell, corruption seems to be the norm, drugs and violence are commonplace and the war they’re meant to be preventing has turned into all-out genocide, to which the A-M bigwigs are turning a blind eye. This is far from the shiny model of efficiency she had been lead to expect at the academy! Lya basically wants to arrest everyone, immediately, and the plot goes in several directions as she gets drawn towards whichever poor rule breaker has caught her eye most recently. She never sleeps; never stops. Lya’s on a one-woman mission to get to the bottom of this shitstorm – while remaining the model obedient soldier to her lacklustre superiors.
Normally in an editorial report I’d follow premise with plot, then a character summary – but in Ripples, the tone and atmosphere are more prominent.
Ripples is science fiction which puts a love of science front and centre. We’re talking about science in its classic triumvirate of physics, chemistry and biology. In our modern age of the internet, we have all the data of the world at our fingertips. In Lya’s futuristic age of neural-nets, she has the data of the world at her neurone-tips. She is an expert on any subject which is relevant to her investigation. She thinks like a textbook. When Lya gets in a fist fight, she doesn’t just hit you as hard as she can – she calculates the perfect pivot point about which to rotate to generate maximum impact, and will follow through on that equation with mass estimations to give you the force transmitted in Newtons. When Lya gets in a knife fight, she doesn’t just poke with the sharp bit – she analyses the anatomical weaknesses of her opponent and picks precisely which bones she’s going to plunge her blade between (with their full scientific names). When Lya plays with explosives – well, you get the point – but there were a couple of chemical names listed which took-up more than an entire row on my kindle! It’s an incredibly jarring style to begin with because it’s so precise, angular and unrelenting. It’s hard work, and it’s draining – this is not easy reading that you can skim through with only half your brain turned on. But I came to appreciate it – it fits.
Mannan is gunning for a very tense and oppressive atmosphere – and absolutely nails it. Illendum is a high-g planet – everything is too heavy for Lya to begin with, the whole planet is crushing her spirits. Illendum is a swamp-world, bleak and rotting – much as her ‘pure’ military dream is disintegrating. With so much corruption, who can Lya trust? Cue creepy paranoia inducing music. The spiky, overly exacting terminology twines through this heavy atmosphere like a tangle of needle-sharp brambles.
Where Mr. Mannan has made his own life difficult, in my humble opinion, is with his character designs. Lya herself is great in principle – the idealistic young hotshot detective/soldier is a solid archetype to build from. But how do you demonstrate personality best? Interactions with other characters. What type of supporting character brings out the full range of personality traits? Friends. Problems here? Lya has none. She had friends in her backstory – back at the academy – and she misses them. But here, in this book, Lya is a lone-wolf. The only person she has to talk to is Aerie, and since Aerie is a mind-twin, Lya is basically talking to herself a lot. Not ideal. So how about making friends? Lya tries. A bit. She’s not very good at it. I hate to say it, but some of the dialogue is horrific. Lya is trying for a kind of jarhead military banter with her new acquaintances, but these are super-soldiers with instantaneous access to mad-scientist insights – it just does not fit. Square peg, round hole – you can’t just close your eyes and ram it in there. With no buddies to bounce off, Lya becomes far more one dimensional than she could have been – she lives for the mission; the plot and the character become one and the same, only plot action illuminates personality.
Except for the tangents. Oh yes. The tangents. So Lya is bi-sexual, which is cool for a military story. Apparently the A-M is big on casual sex, but not so cool about serious relationships (because they impair impartial military decision making). So there’s a scene where Lya’s in the gym, checking out this hottie, and they’re like – I’m horny, let’s have girl-on-girl sex – boom, let’s get it on! And we pretty much never see this girl again. Sorry Adam, that’s called a gratuitous sex scene. Then there’s this other time, when a tangent literally runs into Lya in a corridor and she has to go and play a game of ptolm ball. The game is plenty cool, a kind of twisted-gravity American Football with panels on the floor/walls which unleash crazy effects. Or something. I liked it. But I also liked Ender’s battle games. And Quidditch. I like cool imaginative games. Doesn’t mean they can just be thrown into the middle of a story with no real plot integration like this. It’s clunky and dilutes the momentum.
So, going back to character. Did I mention that Lya only has one arm? I didn’t? Damn. That must be because it’s basically irrelevant, except as a constant irritant to Lya. These stupid bases are designed for soliders with two hands! Did nobody ever consider the mono-armed among us? No. Because of those crazy nano-tech super-bots which repair everyone’s bodies. Except Lya’s arm. They don’t work on that (because of X convoluted reason). But the only having one arm thing does make her combat achievements against dual armed opponents massively more impressive. Reloading guns is a bitch though. Win some, lose some.
In terms of character arc, we’re looking at a drift from protocol driven behaviour towards a more independent mindset. We’re looking at an idealist losing their naivety. We’re looking at an introvert accepting their dependence on others. So it’s something of a broader horizons coming-of-age story. I can only push that angle so far though. Two of my tutors used to argue over what drove strong character motivation. The old man used to say it came from the fulcrum where head, heart and soul vied for supremacy. The young man used to say much the same, but with head, heart and horniness all pulling in different directions. Lya is 90% head, 8% horniness, and 2% split between heart and soul. Ok – that’s probably a little harsh, but her character is so top-heavy (excuse the pun) with intellect, the girl’s a genius who triple-thinks most decisions. There’s some heart and soul in her love for the A-M ideal, but that’s such a clinical zeal it’s too slick to get a handle on. There’s some heart and soul when she misses her academy crew – but they’re backstory we never meet, and even though dramatic events are hinted at, we never learn enough to understand how it’s shaped our lass – so that avenue is underexploited too. The horniness is easy to relate too, but even that is done with such calculation that it keeps emotion at arm’s length. Lya is too disciplined to feel easily – she’s a military machine – in many ways she’s barely human, and that undermines audience ability to empathise with the character. She becomes a brilliant and fascinating specimen – but there’s always the glass wall between you.
Circling back around to plotting – probably my biggest pet peeve. There’s no doubt that the author is a smart cookie, and the chains of causality are taught and tangled, just as they should be in a mystery. But the planning behind the plotting structure is baffling. Our original case is the suicide and thefts from stores, but we don’t even find that out until after a shuttle crash, a hovercraft attack, and a psychoactive medical assault – so we’re three major beats in before we hit our inciting incident. Then we’re off sideways riding tangent after tangent. You can count that stages of our ‘core’ investigation on one hand and the overarching plot thread of ‘the big conspiracy’ soon becomes our anchor. Once that’s settled things unify quickly and the story builds up some good, strong momentum with several chapters of consistently excellent action sequences. Then comes the ending. Oh, the ending! Why, Adam, why? Everything’s shaping up for this big showdown between Lya and the evil Sylarb King. And it never comes. Nothing is resolved. There’s no climax. There’s just this... twist (if you’re generous enough to call it that), which is poorly foreshadowed, not at all explained and left me genuinely angry. It has nothing to do with the plot or character arc to that point. You may as well write “and then an interdimensional rift opened, a small purple seagull flew through it singing the A-Team theme tune and threw fairy dust on Lya”. It does not make the story better.
Adam has chosen to break away from Lya occasionally to illuminate events outside her sphere. I applaud this choice – we need some diversity. Sadly, these interludes are irregular and erratic. There’s an A-M agent up on the orbital station that gets a scene at the beginning, and then suddenly comes back into prominence with a whole string of scenes towards the end (when you’re suddenly like, wha? who is this guy?) And there’s a couple of cut-aways to the evil Sylarb King, which (apart from an extra gratuitous bisexual group sex scene) add little except to confirm that yes, he definitely is behind le grande conspiracy.
Structure is all tied in with the plotting problems.
I’m not going to touch that with a bargepole today.
Pacing is actually pretty strong throughout. The action rolls thick and fast but Lya’s speed of thought keeps it intelligible. There are moments of transition that could have been improved, such as right at the beginning when the shuttle landing begins to go wrong. Lya’s just chilling out, chatting with another new A-M arrival on the planet, and then suddenly we’re in an action scene and Lya’s doing her special-ops thing to hijack the shuttle computers and save the day. There’s no uh-oh moment where we all take a deep breath because we know the faeces and fan are about to make contact. Instead it just sideswipes you, like a car crash. Dramatic, yes, entertaining – so-so.
In terms of package (cover, title, blurb, etc) – I’m at a loss – sorry Mannan. I don’t get the title. The sea has very little to do with this story. The image of a ripple in an emerald sea doesn’t resonate with the story. Honestly, I’ve got nothing. The cover image is relevant, but the overall design and colours are uninspiring/dull. The blurb is functional, but not evocative “a dream of utopia imperiled” doesn’t fly, because ain't nobody ever been dreaming of Illendum as a utopia.
Final subheading would be peers and market position – which is actually a fascinating question here. As one of my mind-book updates I tried to namecheck which books it was reminding me of. I’m going to reel these off in reverse order:
Philip Pullman – His Dark Materials trilogy –A daemon is basically a soul made flesh. Great idea! This came to mind when thinking about Mannan’s gambit with Aerie, Lya’s mind-twin.
Mervyn Peak – Gormanghast – there’s probably a better comparison, but this is what came to mind when thinking about the oppressive atmosphere of Ripples.
Peter Hamilton – Confed/Void series – the character Paula Myo is a super smart sci-fi police agent – definitely a good touchpoint to compare with Lya.
Alastair Reynolds – The Prefect – space detective again.
Richard Morgan – Altered Carbon (& series) – high action, ex-military body-swapping space detective.
Stephen Baxter – Exultant – far future space war, details and oppressive atmosphere.
Adam Roberts – Stone – far future, escaped prisoner on a mission.
Greg Egan – Diaspora – Science heavy, far future AI missions.
CJ Cherryh – Cyteen – Young female genius, in complex political situation.
In summary: if I have so many complaints about this book, how the hell did it get three stars? Because I was gripped. Because it made me think. Because it’s original, and I loved that. Because it’s not a million miles away from being a great book. This doesn’t feel like a final draft to me, it feels too cohesive for a first draft – but maybe a second or third? I don’t know how many drafts a novel normally goes through – a film script will normally hit double figures before production starts, with numerous small revisions on the fly. But this feels like it could have gone through the mill at least a couple more times to grind off the roughest corners and accentuate the strongest elements. Because I feel this is a writer with a lot of potential and it’s exciting to get involved early in his journey. I’m looking forward to seeing the improvement as he grows into his voice over the coming years.
After this I read: The Warrior's Apprentice