Queen of Angels by Greg Bear – a review

 

cover of Queen of Angels by Greg Bear 1991
Queen of Angels by Greg Bear 1991

“Why did the self-aware individual look in the mirror in the first place?
To define its limits.

Why did the self-aware individual look in the mirror?
To understand its existence in relation to others.

Why did the self-aware individual look in the mirror?
To confirm that it was not nothing.

When I started Queen of Angels I didn’t realise how complex it would be – Bear throws everything at this book: psychological development, health and breakdown; socio-political norms, constraints and conflicts; justice and free will; religion and myth; the search for alien life on a newly discovered planet; the development of self-aware AI; nanotech; national conflict; race, racism, identity and appropriation… I could go on.

The Basics

Queen of Angels is set primarily in a near-future version of LA, which could be described as a utopia – the majority of the population are ‘therapied’, resulting in a society where psychological problems are rare and crime is greatly reduced. However, one person’s utopia is another’s dystopia – there are vast inequalities between those who are therapied and those who choose not to be. There are further distinctions between ‘the naturals’ (who are psychologically ‘well’ without therapy) and those who are ‘untherapied’ (who accept an array of emotions and potential psychological distress as a part of human life).

The novel begins with detective Mary Choy investigating the murder of eight people by the poet Emmanuel Goldsmith. Because murder is extremely rare, the shock of this reverberates throughout LA. The form of justice in this future society unsurprisingly involves therapy, which criminals are forced to undergo before being released back into society as well-adjusted citizens. Not everyone considers this to be justice, and a vigilante group called Selectors (who have an element of fairytale monstrousness about them) are trying to get to Goldsmith before detective Choy. Selectors use a ‘hellcrown’ on their perpetrator-victims, a horrendous mental torture that the Selectors believe serve as a more fitting form of punishment and justice than the officially sanctioned method.

With this set-up, I immediately assumed Choy was the protagonist and this was going to be a sci-fi detective novel but her story is only one part of four separate but interlinking narratives.

Narrative One

The first part of the novel follows Choy as she hunts for Goldsmith, the search eventually leading her to Hispaniola due to Goldsmith’s friendship with the current dictator, Colonel Sir John Yardley. Choy is caught up in the cold war between the US and Hispaniola (with shades of the ongoing animosity between the US and Cuba), and Bear effectively demonstrates Choy’s culture shock as she adjusts to Hispaniola’s bureaucracy and rules. Choy’s journey is interesting, although it lags in parts due to too much description (this is a pet hate of mine – I have a tendency to favour tighter, streamlined narratives; other readers may revel in the level of detail). Although Bear borders on losing the story to political abstraction, he fortunately held my interest through Choy’s interaction with Hispaniola citizens, in particular her strained relationship with her guide Soulavier. There is also a very affecting scene where the political and the personal crash into each other through Choy’s horror and disgust at the state-sanctioned use of hellcrowns in prisons. Bear is clearly positioning Choy as a ‘civilised’ representative of the US, but that doesn’t mean readers will be passively accepting this, especially if they are aware of US imperialism. Moreover, Choy’s horror at the Hispaniola’s use of the hellcrown raises the question of whether the US is really so civilised in comparison when their prisoners are forcibly brainwashed into being ‘good’ citizens, and the vigilante terror of the Selectors seems to be at least tolerated if not condoned.

Narrative Two

The second part of Queen of Angels follows Martin Burke. We learn that Burke was once a pioneer in his field, but his work was caught up in a political scandal and his research facility was shut down. Burke and his colleagues (including an old flame, Carol) had pioneered a means to enter another person’s mind to investigate their psychological health. They enter what they call their patient’s ‘Country’, which can be explored by trained therapists as if it were a kind of virtual reality. Burke is pulled out from under the shadow of disgrace by a man who can ensure Burke’s return to his career if in turn Burke will embark on a risky venture.
There is nothing particularly ground-breaking about this section, as it’s basically about the psychological effects of a virtual reality experience gone wrong and I was pretty certain where it was heading. But it was still gripping and it was one of the sections I most looked forward to, particularly when it developed into an effectively creepy and claustrophobic horror story. I like that it leaves you with more questions than answers and the outcome isn’t neatly tied up (although, I’ve since found out there’s a sequel to Queen of AngelsSlant – which may explore this part of the story further).

Narrative Three

The third part of the novel follows AI creator Roger Atkins and his ‘children’ AXIS and Jill. AXIS is sent to a newly discovered planet to search for alien life, and Jill monitors the progress of AXIS. There are fascinating on-going discussions between Atkins, AXIS and Jill, as well as compelling monologues from AXIS and Jill as they work through problems, question whether they have achieved self-awareness, and explore what ‘consciousness’ means for humans. Recurring throughout their conversations is the repeated question/joke that plays off of Lacan’s mirror stage theory in child development – “Why did the self-aware individual look in the mirror?”
This was the strongest and most interesting part of the novel for me. Some readers might not see the immediate connection to the other sections in plot terms (other than Carol’s experience of exploring Jill’s ‘Country’) but the themes of psychology, psychological health, what it means to be human, what consciousness is, and the psychological and sociological pros and cons of advanced technology are all there, offering yet another narrative angle to examine them. Interestingly, this is the part of the novel I found most emotionally affecting, which itself raises questions about humans, empathy, identity and difference.

Narrative Snore Four

The weakest part of the novel was the section that follows Richard Fettle, a writer friend/acolyte of Goldsmith. He’s self-pitying and dull as he embarks on a insular quest to understand why his friend committed murder. Whenever I reached the Fettle parts I’d groan and try to get through them as quickly as possible. Focussing on a small group of artists and writers who knew Goldsmith, this section touched on the socio-political consequences of the murders for people who are untherapied. This would have been a fascinating direction to take, so I felt short-changed by the indulgent dullness of the Fettle storyline. I could accuse Bear of laziness if that didn’t feel so utterly perverse given how complex this novel is. Perhaps it was prejudice rather than laziness and Bear simply wanted to portray society’s outsiders in an unflattering light.
Although I was tempted, I didn’t rebel and skip these sections, but if I read Queen of Angels again (I’m sure I will) I’d skip Fettle. I’d approach the whole novel differently, and it’s a real strength of the book that it can be read in more than one way – I’d like to read each section in full, as if they were self-contained novellas. Part of the reason I’d like to do this is that there is so much going on in the novel that at times I felt overwhelmed and there are some things I may have missed or not considered fully.

Musings on Race, Identity and Appropriation

Throughout Queen of Angels there’s the theme of race and racism. Mary Choy has undergone a biotransformation and part of this is a change in skin colour to black. When questioned on this, Choy states that it isn’t through any feeling of solidarity – it’s a purely aesthetic choice. This raises the question of what happens to race, racism and identity politics when humans can choose their skin colour – will this reinforce inequalities? Or will it do away with racism? Will skin colour come to mean very little and what would this do to people’s notion of history and identity? The emotive subject of identity is particularly relevant today with the Black Lives Matter campaign in the US, and the issue of appropriation after a recent internet furore over someone posing as black. While the issue of race permeates Queen of Angels – from comments about people being black inside/white outside and vice versa (whether they are a ‘transform’ or not), to the race and identity link to Goldsmith’s early experience of trauma, as well as the passages on the history of slave labour and the relationship between the US and Hispaniola – I don’t feel Bear fleshed this out enough and I’m not entirely sure what point he was trying to make. This is an issue that definitely could have been explored more in-depth, while Fettle’s section could have been dropped altogether.

The Active Reader

I’ve read some pieces on Queen of Angels highlighting Bear’s conservative politics and his bid to show the US as a beacon of civilisation and order, as well as positioning ‘evil’ as an individual psychological sickness rather than acknowledging society’s flaws and the impact of inequalities on people’s lives. This may have been Bear’s intention, but I didn’t read it this way (Barthe’s death of the author, anyone?) – I found myself disturbed by a society of majority therapied and a protagonist (Choy) with such stringent moral certainties (coupled with her underlying respect for the Selectors) and her easy appropriation of black skin. I was also disturbed by the idea of the US being in anyway superior to other nations such as Hispaniola. Thankfully, readers will not engage with Queen of Angels uncritically, whatever the (figuratively dead) author’s intentions.

I highly recommend Queen of Angels – despite its flaws and conservative worldview, it’s a well-written page-turner and has so many fascinating layers and themes that your untherapied ‘Country’ will have plenty to chew over. Moreover, you’re guaranteed to have freakish dreams about Selectors and you heart will be lost to an AI. Psychological turmoil, nightmares and machine-love – what more can you want from a book?

* * *

Sci-Fi vs Lit Fic

Before I finish up, I’d like to bring up the bug-bear of Science Fiction versus Literary Fiction. As I was reading this, I was thinking about how the quality of the writing is as good as – if not better – than many acclaimed literary novels. The grand themes and the intelligence of the execution is also as good as many literary novels, but I know there are people who will take one look at the cover and say “No, sci-fi isn’t for me.” It is for you – sci-fi has a lot to say about what it means to be human, and given the ubiquitous presence of tech in our daily lives it offers us various narratives through which to navigate the psychological, sociological and ethical issues that are raised as technology advances faster and faster.

What makes a novel literary and another sci-fi? If you read Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, Orwell’s 1984 or Huxley’s Brave New World, you’re reading sci-fi.  As a reader, do genre distinctions matter to you? Or is it simply a construction by publishers and marketers? As a writer, how do you feel about genre distinctions? Is it helpful? Or is it a straightjacket?

Given its complexity (which, I admit, was overwhelming at times) Queen of Angels probably isn’t the best place to start if you’re a sci-fi newbie, but if you need any pointers, let me know and we can go on a sci-fi journey together.

 

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