The 1990s was an important decade for science-fiction—it saw the rise of the postcyberpunk movement and also the beginning of the near endless obsession with dystopian science-fiction. While dystopian sci-fi wasn’t new in the 90s, it did begin to become much more prominent in the award-winning or nominated books such as Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age, Octavia Butler’s Parable novels, Maureen F. McHugh’s China Mountain Zhang, and Nancy Kress’s Beggars in Spain. There was, however, more to the 90s than this—this was the decade that gave rise to the nanopunk movement, spearheaded by such acclaimed authors as Linda Nagata and our subject today: Kathleen Ann Goonan.
Ms. Goonan had already made a name for herself with her short fiction writing, but it was the publication of her first novel, Queen City Jazz, that made her a science-fiction mainstay. Her books have been nominated for (or, in the case of In War Times, won) the Nebula Award, the Arthur C. Clarke Award, and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award. This review in particular is about her acclaimed first effort, Queen City Jazz.
The novel is an interesting and highly ambitious experiment. Set in a post-apocalyptic future where nanotechnology has developed enough to literally regrow things (called “bionan”) which led to population-decimating plagues, it features such prominent elements as music (jazz, unsurprisingly), complex scientific theories, bees (or Bees, more accurately), and a city setting. Yet at its heart, Queen City Jazz is a story about people—how they interact with each other, their love and appreciation for art, how they long to improve themselves and the world around them.
In the novel, there are two conflicting perspectives on technology and the future, as exemplified by our protagonist, Verity: to close oneself off from technology, embrace religion, and remain celibate; or to embrace nanotech with ethical uses, have a secular humanist perspective, and be a sex-positive feminist sort. If you’re at all familiar with Goonan, you’ll know her own view is the latter, but this is no one-dimensional Sherri Tepper tract. Instead, Verity comes to decide her worldview through a long, hard-wrought journey and self-reflection. Kathleen Goonan also writes a very multi-layered story, one of love, of failure, and of putting things back together, both for oneself and for humanity as a whole. I won’t spoil it, but the plot is complicated and is more satisfying to be discovered on ones own.
Writing-wise, Goonan is solid. I did find it irritating how she constantly had Verity or another character ask a question with it saying, “she asked” or “he asked.” This is unnecessary in almost every use due to most conversations in the novel only containing two people. Otherwise her prose is bright and descriptive, and for the most part, she avoided being too adverb-happy. I can say, though, that she improved immensely in her other novels, even just by her vastly underrated second effort, The Bones of Time.
In terms of characters, I liked just about everyone. Verity is the sort of protagonist I’ve been missing from modern sci-fi—she’s tough and refuses to sit by and let people keep her in the dark, solves her problems by herself, and forms complex and meaningful relationships with those around her. And, despite being a teenager, romantic love does not consume her as a character. There is a minor relationship for her, but it's a very small element of the novel. Sphere was far more interesting than I’d expected when he first appeared; far from being the Magical Negro I feared when he turned out to be the only black character in the novel with good screen-time, he was a multi-layered and three-dimensional character. While his story helped Verity’s, he had his own life and motivation for helping her. Blaze may not have been in the novel very much, but I sure did sympathize with him. And in terms of Abe—all I can say is, Kathleen Goonan made me both love and hate the guy at the same time.
In terms of flaws, the novel took a long time to truly get to the most interesting moments. While character driven stories often have slow pacing, I gave up on the book several times before finally reaching the point where the pace sped up again, and found it almost as engrossing as it was for the first seventy pages. Also, I wish she’d explained why there didn’t seem to be that much diversity in the city—I suppose since the city was “designed” to be a certain way it can be excused, but since there didn’t seem to be that many people, even in the background of the narrative, who didn’t seem to fit the designation of “white or western European” or “black.” Outside of one or two characters, no one was (at least implied to be, based on unfortunate references to "slanted eyes") Asian-American. Hopefully in the other books we’ll get some notice over what happened to the Native American reservations. Also, I didn't see anyone in the novel anywhere on the LGBTQIA spectrum. This unfortunately is often common in Ms. Goonan's work.
In summary, Queen City Jazz is a good first effort that holds up pretty well considering over twenty years have passed since its release. With charming characters, beautiful prose, and a complex and unique plot, it manages to overcome its flaws and captivate the reader. In many ways, with its teenage girl protagonist and coming-of-age theme, it succeeds more as a young adult science-fiction novel than many modern examples of young adult sci-fi. I'd recommend it to folks 15 and up.