Queering SFF

Look into the Shuffle: Spin State by Chris Moriarty

The first installment of Chris Moriarty’s recently-completed Spin Trilogy, Spin State (2003) was a finalist for the Philip K. Dick, John Campbell, Spectrum and Prometheus Awards—a strong debut, fast-paced, that Nicola Griffith described as “vivid, sexy, and sharply written […] a nonstop, white-knuckle tour of quantum physics, artificial intelligence, and the human heart.” And it’s also—more of a rarity—a hard science fiction novel with a queer woman protagonist.

Spin State introduces Major Catherine Li, a UN Peacekeeper sent to investigate an “accidental” death on her home planet, a mining world that produces the Bose-Einstein condensate that makes quantum entanglement and its benefits—travel, commerce, communication—possible. As one might expect, however, the situation is anything but straightforward; Li is being played against (and by) a variety of actors in the larger political sphere. The answers she finds on Compson’s World could shift the balance of power between the UN and the Syndicates with regard to the control of inhabited space. Li’s own secrets are at risk of discovery, and her relationships to her handlers, associates, and friends—particularly an Emergent AI called Cohen—will determine the outcome.

The balance in this novel—between complex and believable science, interpersonal conflict, a dramatic, high-stakes mystery, and the socio-political milieu of the far-flung and advanced world—is well-executed, creating a gripping, fully realized experience for the reader. I particularly appreciated the pacing; Spin State is not a short novel, and it’s difficult at greater lengths to sustain consistent tension that fluctuates just enough to avoid slipping into a one-note pattern. Moriarty succeeds on that score with a seemingly effortless, driving plot that nevertheless has its own quiet, intimate moments.

It’s likely no surprise that I find those quiet, intimate moments to be what sets Spin State apart from other hard science fiction thrillers. The attention to relationships—particularly as the forces behind politics, science, and culture—adds depth and breadth of affect to those typical features of a thriller: intrigue, espionage, and murder. Li’s internal struggles with her lost memory, her family history, and her inability to form functional romantic attachments are, at least to my eye, almost more engaging than the mystery; however, they ultimately depend a great deal on each other. Above all—though I would also, of course, say that it’s seriously fun—Spin State is balanced, a coherent and tightly interlocking whole narrative made up of individual, unique, and carefully crafted parts. Some of those parts are the threads of a mystery; some of those parts are characters and their interactions.

As for those characters, Moriarty develops them with a deft hand, weaving detailed backstories into complex identities and current motivations. That many of those characters also are women, or are posthuman, or are AIs, adds another layer to my appreciation; the novel’s cast is rich and diverse, as is the world in which they act. For example, Cohen as an AI is identified using male pronouns, but the people/bodies he shunts through to interact with realspace are of varying genders, and Cohen is multifarious enough that using a singular pronoun is often questionable.

The Spin State future is one in which certain things—embodiment, gender, sexuality—have shifted in significance compared to other factors like genetics, artificiality, and world of origin, though all are still fraught. Li, a woman of color who is also a genetic construct, a woman who is queer and from an impoverished background, is subject to a great deal of prejudice even in the “developed” future. Though much of the direct discrimination in the novel is figured around the Emergent AIs and genetic constructs—a move familiar from much far-future SF—the novel doesn’t disregard or dismiss oppression on the usual contemporary terms, either. Spin State is a socially conscious, culturally invested thriller; Moriarty pays particular attention to inequality and oppression, unwilling to gloss over the uglier parts of her imagined future. That touch of investment, of commentary, is part of what elevates this novel for me above the sheer pleasure of the racing plot and complex relationships that drive it.

Not that the fun bits aren’t great—because they are. As I’ve mentioned, the pacing is fantastic, but the mystery itself is also engaging. Though some players and problems become clear to both Li and the reader early on, the shadows lingering behind them are complicated and intriguing to unravel. Who to trust, and how far, is always put to question here: some betrayals are obvious, but some are much less so. The ambiguous figure of General Nguyen is an excellent foil for Li to develop against and in response to, also. The sudden domino-effect that closes the novel, and Li’s conversation with Nguyen afterwards, were quite breathtaking in their speed and ferocity. I appreciated that the novel gives some answers fast, but withholds the motivations and extenuating factors behind them, so a piece falls into place one at a time, slowly, until a web of solutions glimmers into being. The conclusion and the data that the murdered Sharifi had discovered—plus its implications for the universe in which Li lives—are quite a knock-out, too, in terms of what they have to say about intelligence, artificial and otherwise, and what “life” might be.

The central relationship that the novel skirts, develops, and tangles up, the one between Li and Cohen, also develops slowly and in response to the pressures being put on them externally by their discoveries on Compson’s World. In some ways, it’s a typical romance plot—in others, anything but. The scene in which Li explores Cohen’s memory palace and is overwhelmed by his vastness, and also by his memories of her, is deeply evocative and emotional, while also being totally alien. The AI is something other, and Li herself is not fully human; their boundaries, conflicts, and points of connection are fascinating, and watching the relationship develop throughout the book, rolling toward its (seemingly inevitable) solution, is a genuine pleasure. It goes more or less unremarked in the text that Li has been intimate with Cohen across variously gendered bodies, but for the queer reader, that’s a pleasant note. Again, it’s not often that I see a novel like this one starring a queer person—but give me a hard-SF thriller with a complicated queer romance between a posthuman and an AI above one without that, any day.

As a whole, Spin State is engrossing, sharp-witted, well-developed and immersive. There’s a lot going on in this book, and certainly more than I feel like I can cram into this post—the science, I can’t really speak to, for example. It convinced me quite thoroughly, but that’s more or less the extent of the commentary I can offer. There’s also a whole essay to be written on consciousness and identity in Spin State, and what Moriarty is doing with the definitions of “human”—or why we’d even want to use that as a central designator of intelligence—that I’d like to read. However, forget what I haven’t talked about: I can concretely say that Spin State has a great deal to offer to readers who appreciate complex worlds, complex identities, and an exploration of how those things interact. Also, for a queer science fiction fan, this book comes as a delightful surprise. The novel contributes hugely to a genre that could really use the depth and richness it brings—and in doing so, makes that field more interesting to me (and I suspect to many readers) than it’s ever been before. The espionage is cool and the action is intense, but the characters and their relationships to each and other and their world are what mark the Spin books as unique. (The second novel in the series, Spin Control, carries on in the same intriguing vein—but we’ll talk about that next time.)


Brit Mandelo is a writer, critic, and editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. She can be found on Twitter or her website.

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