Wed
May 1 2013 11:00am
The Time of Cruel Miracles: Spin Control by Chris Moriarty

Spin Control Chris Moriarty reviewThe second in the Spin trilogy, Spin Control (2006) was a finalist for the Lambda Award and winner of the 2007 Philip K. Dick award. As the follow-up to an already strong debut, Spin Control builds on the complexity and intensity of Spin State—and, to my delight, it also drastically expands the world of the novels, giving insight into both the Syndicates and the splinters of humanity still surviving on Earth.

Spin Control follows Arkady, a Rostov Syndicate scientist, and Cohen, the Emergent AI, across a political landscape rife with strain and danger: the recently revived Israel-Palestine conflict on Earth. Arkady had participated in a terraforming mission that went terribly wrong on the planet Novalis; something he discovered there, with his lover and pairmate Arkasha, is being offered to Israel as a trade as he defects to that country from the Syndicates. Of course, the whole thing is being driven by a Syndicate spymaster—but only so far. Cohen and Li have arrived to bid on the “weapon,” or whatever it might be that Arkady has been told to offer, for ALEF. Other players on the world stage are also participating, including the Americans and the Palestinians. The “weapon” itself, however, and who’s playing for what team: none of these things are clear, and every acquaintance is a potential traitor.

The first two books in the trilogy, though united by their concern with futurity, identity, and politics, are also quite different. Where Spin State was driven by a murder-mystery rife with intrigue, Spin Control is a political novel; the former is a linear narrative focused only on Li, while the latter’s shifting narrative focus is shared by Arkady and Cohen—while also moving between past and present timelines, weaving together several significant threads of the story. I’m also pleased to say that Moriarty’s already-significant skills have improved between the two novels: whereas Spin State’s balanced narrative and thematic coherence was something I appreciated, Spin Control displays a tight focus, lean and vivid prose, and the control—forgive the pun—necessary to execute such a multilayered and gripping story while also maintaining the level of intimate and personal detail necessary to develop the characters and their complicated political and personal lives.

Moriarty is also careful in her depiction of the conflict between Israel and Palestine, offering a realistic and thought-out portrait of a problematic war with no winners and no “good guys,” but where each side has its own interests and needs that are valid and heartbreaking. Cohen’s creator was himself Jewish; therefore Cohen, across the centuries of his life, has remained loyal to Israel and helped the government when possible and ethical. He also, however, has his sympathies with the Palestinians, and is displeased with much of what each side has been doing in the recent conflict. In particular, Cohen is disgusted by their mutual choice to chain AIs to young soldiers to fight a more efficient war while telling them that it’s a game—and shutting them down before they become self-aware, realize that there are real people on the other end of the gun, and inevitably commit suicide. The war crosses families, boundaries, generations—and it’s rendered in painful, sympathetic detail, including the collateral damage done to those who have only been trying to do their part. Arkady’s view of Earth and of humanity, coming as he does from the collectivist Syndicates, is incisive and allows Moriarty to engage in quite a bit of cultural commentary about our faults as a species—but, because it’s through Arkady, that commentary is empathetic, horrified, and hopeful for future change.

I’d also like to note that, though I loved Li’s toughness, her brittleness, her needs and fears and problems—I seriously adore Arkady, particularly as the structural point for the majority of the narrative. His honesty, his softness, his naïveté, and his genuine—and therefore dangerous to him—emotional range are a sharp counterpoint to Li, and even to Cohen, who himself is complex and full of affective observations of self and others. The moment that will linger with me longest from this book, I suspect, is Arkady’s reaction to the fact that, as chaos unfolds on Novalis, he forgets to take his army ants out of the spiral experiment he has put them into. When he returns to the lab to see that they’ve run themselves to death, it’s a short response—but good lord, that scene is intense. I don’t much love ants, but Arkady does, and Moriarty wraps the reader up so thoroughly into Arkady’s self that it’s hard not to feel devastated by the accidental torture of those particular ants.

Akrady is also a focal point for some fascinating exploration of gender and sexuality. He, too, is queer—though not by Syndicate norms. While I normally hate the “homosexuality is the norm, heterosexuality is the deviation!” flip-flop trope, the way Moriarty executes it in the Syndicate culture is actually pretty damn intriguing. The “six percent rule” is an invention that I chewed over for a while: the novel at one point explains that, despite all the efforts to genetically engineer sexual orientation one way or the other, six percent won’t fall in line with that attempt. Arkasha suggests to Arkady that the six percent norm-deviation is actually necessary for survival, change, and adaptation; that’s pretty heretical in terms of Syndicate ideology, but Arkasha wants to improve the Syndicates’ potentially self-destructive focus on strict norming. It’s edgy and offers plenty of crunchy food for thought, especially in terms of Arkady’s own frightened arousal at the sight of Ahmed and Bella having straight sex on Novalis. Six percent begins to seem awfully low when the reader thinks through the grey areas between binary orientations, and how those are simply not talked about in the Syndicate’s culture.

There’s also an excellent line where Arkady and Osnat are discussing the fact that Syndicate movies are shown on Earth, and Osnat says that they’re shown at “the Castro” and drops off before she finishes explaining that it’s because the Syndicate films are all queer. The reader gets it; Arkady doesn’t seem to. Those little touches are what makes me love these books: the attention to developing hugely varied and equally believable cultures between humans, posthumans, AIs, and genetic constructs of varying types makes the Spin universe feel achingly real.

Also, because of the inclusion of the Syndicate culture, which is far more sympathetic through the eyes of its own citizens who critique its flaws but also appreciate its positives, Spin Control is far more explicit in its commentary on prejudice and oppression, as well as individual identities. Where Li’s sexuality goes unremarked in the first book—pleasurable in its own way—Arkady’s, Arkasha’s, Osnat’s, and the majority of those on Earth or Novalis during the novel are a central point of exploration. Arkady is, after all, driven by love more than politics, idealism, or anything else: he simply wants to save Arkasha.

And, when I think about it, love seems to be the shadowy hand guiding much of this novel—which adds a gentle touch of idealism to an otherwise sad and gritty story of war, loss, confusion and fear. Cohen and Li’s relationship is on the rocks, and Cohen’s resultant explorations of self, age, and identity are intensely fascinating. Seeing into his head after getting to know him in the first book is an excellent treat. Gavi’s love for country and child are also stunning; I could say the same about his love for the slowly deteriorating memories of the Holocaust memorial and museum, which he’s determined to make into a self-aware AI that can keep the memories alive. The further development of AI rights, identities, and needs in this book was also lovely. Again, I feel the need to say: Spin State was great, and Spin Control is even better—deeper, richer, more complex and broad in scope.

Oh, and of course, there’s the ending—a classic sort of vista-opening cliffhanger, wherein the novel’s plot is wrapped up but the conflict of the next is introduced. I am, in a strange way, glad that I didn’t discover these books until now, when Ghost Spin is slated to release at the end of May. I think that a nearly seven year wait might have undone me, after the crunchy, multifarious, and deeply engaging rush that was Spin Control. I’ll be thinking over the book’s politics, its conceptions of identity, and its characters for a long time yet. Moriarty is tackling sensitive, painful topics; she’s also extrapolating a fascinating future, a believable and broken one that seems quite possible from here. I appreciate the affective depth of this novel, compared to the first—it goes from fun and thinky to fascinating and provocative. I can only hope that these evolutions in style and content continue into the final installment, though I’m always-already sad to know that Ghost Spin is the last I’ll see of this world, these people, and their future. But, again—that’s for 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.

1 comment
Constance Sublette
1. Zorra
Thank you for such a thoughtful discussion of these books. I'm going to look for them now, for which I'm not exactly grateful, considering how much I must be reading for da Project! :)

Love, C

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