‘Aurora In Four Voices’ by Catherine Asaro
I’d never read Catherine Asaro before but was aware of her unique selling point: the fusion of hard SF and romance. Two great flavours that taste great together! Or perhaps not.
‘Aurora In Four Voices’ is indeed the worst of both worlds. So, on the one hand, we have hard SF gravel like this (which takes place during what is notionaly a frantic escape):
“That’s why consoles transmit infrared signals.” Her face had an inwardly directed quality, as if she were running a canned routine to answer him while she focuses her attention elsewhere. “The sockets act as IR receivers and transitters. Bio-optic threads in my body carry signals to the computer node in my spine. It processes the data and either responds or contacts my brain. Bio-electrodes in my neurons translate its binary into thought: 1 makes the neuron fire and 0 does nothing. It works in reverse too, so I can ‘talk’ to my spinal node.”
And, on the other, we have romance cliche like this: “Jato hardly heard her. All he saw was her smile. It dazzled.” The object of his awe – a colonel in the intelligence service of an interstellar navy – is equally bedazzled: “Jato, I’m terrible at this. Ask me to clculate engine efficiency, plot a course, plan strategy – I’m a whiz… Put me in front of a handsome man and I’m as clumsy as a pole in a pot.”
Impressively, Asaro sometimes manages to deploy both simultaneously:
He tilted his head towards the courtyard. “Do you remember the design in the tiles back there? The curving lines?” When she nodded, he said, “It’s a plot of the vorticies for a single-degree oscillator with an undamped torsional flutter. “He stroked her blowing curls back from her face.
The story itself is simple: boy meets girl, boy and girl fall in love at first sight, girl rescues boy from supervillian. However, this doesn’t do justice to the sheer madness of the plot so I’d like to go into it in a bit of detail. An illiterate adolescent farmer who apparently can’t operate a voice-operated computer saves his pennies and travels to the planet of the Dreamers hoping to trade one of his dreams for one of their immensely valuable works of art. Instead, the galaxy’s greatest artist takes a shine to him and frames him for a non-existent murder with the complicity of the upper eschelons of Dreamer society. He becomes an unwilling muse, imprisoned and tortured for the next eight years. Our farmer does have some freedom, however, and during this period finds time to compose a fugue to be played on four “spherical-harmonic harps”, invent a new form of musical notation based on the angles of carved facets and then etches these onto a sculpture of a bird he has carved from black marble which he quarried (he still can’t use a voice-operated computer though). Perhaps you are ahead of me but this is instantly recognised by everyone (except the protagonist) as one of the greatest works of art the universe has ever seen. The passing colonel finds his innocence equally recognisable (maybe it is his smile) and there follows some knockabout action crap before they fly off into the sunset together.
Anything positive to say? Well, it is definitely space opera. In fact, with its implausibly monumental architecture and grotesquely overblown antagonist, it resembles late – which is to say bad – Banks.
During their introduction, Hartwell and Cramer state (pretty much apropos of nothing) that: “One of the boundaries that US space opera is pushing is feminism and the role of women. British space opera has not been notably feminist.” Obviously, no evidence is provided and you are unlikely to find any in Asaro’s story either.