Queering SFF

Decoherent Histories: Ghost Spin by Chris Moriarty

The third and final installment of Chris Moriarty’s Spin Trilogy, Ghost Spin, releases at the end of May—nearly seven years after the initial release of Spin Control, itself the brilliant follow-up to her debut novel, Spin State. In much the same way that the second book differed significantly from the first in tone, focus, and structure, Ghost Spin is an ambitious attempt to once again provide a fresh angle on this universe and its problems—this time with space pirates, fractured AIs, and a desperate two-pronged search for answers to questions that are at first personal, but are ultimately the force that will shift the direction of the future.

The story revolves primarily around Catherine Li and Cohen, with the addition of other narrators, including ex-Navy captain, now-pirate William Llewellyn. In the opening chapter, Cohen is trapped on a backwater planet recently taken over by the UN—and, as a security team closes in on him, he commits suicide. His component parts are auctioned off almost instantly, as is the usual procedure for decoherent AIs; however, he’s left a trail of clues for Li, and the only hope for what he was trying to do, to save, is that she’ll find and pursue them. Li herself, without Cohen’s protection, is also in plenty of danger—from Nguyen, from the Syndicates demanding her extradition, and elsewhere. The question of what Cohen was up to, as well as how she can finish the job and put him back together, drives Li to make a series of dangerous and significant decisions that might alter the course of humanity’s future.

First and foremost: this is a strange book, ambitious—as I’ve said—and multifaceted, in terms of narrative structure and point of view as well as in terms of the science, the world-building, and the plot itself. The experiments with structure and character that Moriarty engages in are certainly intriguing, though in the end, I find it challenging to say whether or not I find them entirely successful. Ghost Spin is a great book, but I cannot say that I found it as complete, coherent, and engaging as Spin Control; it loses a great deal of the grappling intimacy of the prior books through its often unpredictable shifts in point of view, its scope, and its pacing. It’s still an excellent read: gripping, fast-paced, provocative and handsome. Comparatively, though, it does not make the leap of skill and execution that I noted between the first two books; it’s a fine effort, and a pleasurable read, but it’s not enough to blow me away as I had hoped.

On a personal note, I also possibly have had enough space pirates for a lifetime. This is hardly the book’s fault, but I found Llewellyn a bit disorienting, particularly in the context of the Spin universe as I know it—rather than deeply real and believable, he often struck me as a type, and a type I don’t care much for.

Spoilers follow.

There is, really, no way to discuss this book without giving things away: namely, that after scattercasting herself across the spinfoam, there are two Lis narrating their given sections—one on New Allegheny, the other onboard Llewellyn’s pirate ship with the Cohen fragment that he houses. This decoherent narrative is a fascinating choice, given the focus of the plot—Cohen’s own fragmentation and scattering—though it results in a bit more expository dialogue than I’m used to in the Spin novels about scattercasting, the Drift itself, quantum mechanics, et cetera. I do appreciate how unnerving it is as a technology, how eerie the thought is of having almost endless replicas of oneself available for resurrection by whoever finds them, especially when that person is Li, who has plenty of vicious enemies. The fragmentation of familiar characters—not to mention the fact that this book skips almost a decade, during which a lot has changed that the reader doesn’t even know about—makes this book feel fresh and removed from the previous novels, despite the contiguous universe.

Of course, it also results in a loss of affect, one of the primary drivers of the previous two books. That’s an interesting choice, and creates a very different sort of reading experience than that I had with Spin State and Spin Control. The reader remains a step back, driven there by constant shifts in POV across vast areas of space, as well as the occasional introduction of narrators for only one section. In particular, Arkady’s section near the end struck me as bewildering on the first read. (I did, actually, read the last fifty pages or so again, because I found them rather disorienting during the initial perusal.) I find this apropos and functional for a book about loss, distance, and decoherence; the structure functions to instill in the reader a sense of the characters’ experience, and that’s remarkably clever.

The plot itself—a search for Cohen’s secrets in a decaying empire teetering on the brink of collapse—is far bleaker than those of the prior novels, as is the setting. There is a certain hopelessness permeating the Spin universe in this volume, an inability to move forward or to explain the vast shifts in expectation and potentiality that have occurred during these characters’ lifetimes, that aches to read. So, the affect isn’t entirely gone: it’s just been displaced into the world. And the ending, similarly, leaves me blinking on the precipice of some grand and frightening change for their world—exactly as it’s supposed to.

That ending is as ambitious as the rest of the novel, and as one might expect, a touch hard to follow. I do find it fascinating that Moriarty ends the trilogy on a hugely open note: with the questions of who the Drift “aliens” are or what they are entirely unanswered, humanity’s time in the limelight extinguished, and post-humanity taking the reins for some sort of entirely alien, unimaginable future in which the Cohen/Ada/etc. figure now residing in the Novalis datatrap has changed the rules entirely. But, we don’t know how it’ll change, and neither do the characters. (This, of course, gives me some sort of hope that I’ll see more of these folks in other stories. Though that may be wishful thinking.)

I find this a perfect sort of ending to a series that grew more complicated and immense as it progressed. I don’t want the answers, ultimately, though I keep thinking through the hints and the questions long after finishing the book. This universe has been on the brink since Spin State, when Li destabilized the entire process of FTL travel. It’s going through wild changes while pure humanity is losing its power despite its attempts to maintain it through violence, subterfuge, and outright monstrousness. I find it entirely right that, in the end, it’s hard to tell what will come next, or even what “life” in this universe has become.

Ghost Spin is also, perhaps, the book least concerned with identity—it does play a factor in the Catherine/Caitlyn/Cohen(s) issues, but surprisingly less than I would have expected—particularly in comparison to its forerunners. Gender and sexuality, here, are in many ways unremarkable; it’s a book about loss, and being scoured by loss so thoroughly that it’s difficult to tell what’s even left of the person’s self any longer. This is another remove from the first two novels, one that perhaps makes Ghost Spin the least political of the bunch: mostly, it’s about nominally straight couples and their problems, with the exception of the relationship, briefly glimpsed, between Korchow and Arkady. It’s also not got a lot in the way of political intrigue in it, though the obvious disapproval for colonialism comes through quite clearly.

It’s an odd book—but, as I’d like to reemphasize, a good book. I’d rather read an ambitious novel that has missteps and discontinuous pieces than a perfectly executed but predictable one. Moriarty has drawn her trilogy to a fascinatingly open close, leaving Li about to step into a vastly different universe than the one we began with in Spin State. I appreciated the journey, and will likely come back to these books again—I suspect there’s much to be gleaned from a second reading—for their unique pleasures, their intrigue, their pacing, and most of all, the intimate and well-realized characters who drive the evolution of their own futures.

Lee 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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