Friday, July 27, 2012

"The Wellstone" by Wil McCarthy

(cover image from

The Wellstone (2003) is a re-read for me. It's the second book in Wil McCarthy's Queendom of Sol series, sequel to The Collapsium, but it's the first book I read.

And it works very well as a standalone read, since it takes place many years after the first book, and the characters are the next generation of the Queendom. (As it turns out, that's the whole point.)

Anyway, I was blown away by this book the first time I read it. I remember thinking that it was a plausible, yet remarkably optimistic vision of our future.

This time, as I was reading it, the book didn't seem so optimistic. It's funny, but I had a somewhat different reaction, at least during the first half of the book. (The last half restored my optimism, I think.)

But it wasn't just the end of the book vs the beginning, not really. What's really optimistic is the incredible technological achievements of the Queendom. They've pretty much conquered death itself - they have conquered old age - and even children can manipulate programmable matter to do almost anything.

No one wants for anything. If our own society would seem like a utopia to our ancestors, this one very definitely seems like a utopia to us (to me, at least). But human nature hasn't changed. And I'm not sure that human beings are really suited to utopias.

After an odd sort of prologue (see below*), The Wellstone begins in a camp for rebellious teenagers - 16- and 17-year-old boys, including the Crown Prince of the Queendom, who're the major characters of this book.

These kids aren't especially admirable, but then, if they're the worst their society produces, I guess this part of the book might be more optimistic than it seems. Besides, they're basically just unhappy. And they have reason for that.

Immortality might seem wonderful - certainly at a personal level - but what would that do to our society? These children of immortal parents face the prospect of being considered children forever.

[As I was reading, this theme reminded me of Cryoburn (2010) by Lois McMaster Bujold. The theme there is that time marches on, but also that it's probably necessary. We don't live forever,... and it might be a good thing we don't.]

The crown prince will never become king, because his parents will never die. Their generation will never move up, never take over responsibility for the world, because the older generation will never retire, never die, never leave to make room for them.

Some of them no doubt accept this - after all, they, too, get immortality out of the deal. But many chafe at the prospect. And the kids in Camp Friendly are the troublemakers, led by a brilliant young prince.

Without getting into details, let me just say that they stage a daring and desperate prison break. OK, Camp Friendly isn't technically a prison, but it certainly feels like it to them. And it's particularly dangerous, because the camp is on a miniature artificial planet deep in the Kuiper belt, billions of miles from Earth.

And death is still very real. Oh, sure, if you die, one of your stored patterns from months ago is activated. But is that clone really you? Certainly, he won't have your recent memories. And sometimes, our experiences change us in significant ways.

Note that that's also the theme in Farthest Star (1975) by Frederick Pohl and Jack Williamson, and I love it here as I loved it in that book. (Sorry, but I've read enough science fiction that I'm always being reminded of previous stories.)

In the Queendom, copies are normally reintegrated, so you retain the memories of both. But if 'you' die, you're gone. The fact that a (partial) copy will still exist somewhere might not be much of a consolation when you're struggling for breath.

At any rate, this is an exciting adventure. And the main protagonist of the story develops admirably. He's always sympathetic, but his experiences cause him to grow. In fact, he grows up, becoming not just a man, but a real hero. (And the prospect of his potential death, of all that growth being for naught, rightly frightens him and us.)

He's not the only admirable character, either. (Note that the girl, Xmary, is a very appealing character, too.) Not everyone is sympathetic, certainly not at first. But there are a lot of young people with a lot of potential.

At one point in the book, we encounter some young runaways, all naked (they're nudists) and colored pastel blue. They're weird, yes. But quickly, we see that they're vigorous, self-directed, hard-working, and intelligent. They'd be an asset to any society.

There's just no place for them in the Queendom. Kids today can have their fads - my generation certainly did! - and yet expect to grow up and take charge of their own society. In The Wellstone, they see immortality creating a prison which will never open up for them.

This is a brilliant book, highly entertaining and thought-provoking, both. I highly recommend it!

*PS. I did want to say a word about the prologue (as I consider it, although it's actually just Chapter 1). The book begins in the far distant future, and it has almost a steampunk feel to it. Conrad Mursk is still alive, guiding a tiny brass sphere - through muscle-power, no less - as it tries to land on a miniature artificial planet.

He's seeking help from a man even older than he is, a man who's been alone for so long that he can't even recognize novelty. All we know is that there's war, terrible war, and that most of the technological accomplishments of the Queendom are long gone.

The entire book, then, is basically a flashback to the distant past. I don't normally like that sort of thing. And in this case, I especially dislike it because it seems clear that the series must not be optimistic after all.

Now, I haven't read the final two books, so I don't actually know if that's the case. But I'm pretty sure that this prologue is the reason why I didn't continue with the series. It just didn't make the next books sound appealing.

I would have preferred The Wellstone without the very beginning and very end, which simply hint at disaster without really adding anything to the story.

But there you go. This is not nearly enough to affect my enjoyment of the book. And who knows? I might feel differently once I do read the final two volumes.

Certainly, it shouldn't put you off from reading this superb SF novel. Just be aware that the real story here begins with Chapter 2.

Note: Here's my review of the third book, Lost in Transmission.


hobbs said...

I'm glad to see that you did go on and read the remainder of the series :)

WCG said...

Me, too! I loved the series. I just wish Wil McCarthy was still writing. As far as I can tell, he hasn't written anything since 2005.

Thanks for the comment, hobbs.