“Burndive” by Karin Lowachee

25 Sep

Burndive! Second of Lowachee’s Warchild series.

Burndive is author Karin Lowachee’s second novel, following her debut Warchild (winner of the Warner Aspect First Novel Award). The events of the book occur before, during and after the events of Warchild, so the book can be read as an independent novel as well as a sequel. In a previous review I mentioned giving Warchild a grade of 9.5 out of 10, and I still stand by my opinion that it’s one of the best scifi novels of the decade, never mind a remarkable work from a first time author, but unfortunately Burndive makes up for the structural and thematic flaws Warchild managed to avoid. I would rate the book a 6.5 out of 10, at most.

Burndive’s protagonist is Ryan, son of Songlian Lau the PR magnate and Cairo Azarcone, one of the most well known and revered military figures in recent human history and captain of the battleship “Macedon”. Ryan grows up wealthy and famous on a space station more or less run by his mother and grandmother. But his life as a spoiled, aimless college dropout is disrupted when an attempt on his life causes his father – whom Ryan’s met only a handful of times – to pluck Ryan out of his comfortable existence and place him on “Macedon”, for Ryan’s own protection. Now finding himself in the middle of the war that, due to Ryan’s privileged existence, had until then only appeared on the outskirts of his vision, Ryan has to learn to deal with his father, the military, and his own reasons for never “making anything of himself,” despite ample opportunity.

 The book has many weaknesses and few strengths, as I’ll detail below, but the primary and most egregious issue is, to me, the fact that the book shifts between first-person-present-tense, first-person-past-tense and third-person-past-tense, all while keeping Ryan as the POV character. Lowachee is famous for experimenting with point of view – the first few chapters of Warchild are written in second-person-present-tense before switching to a more conventional narrative style – but in this book it crosses the line from interesting literary experiment to needlessly confusing. Nothing is gained by these shifts except a distracting sense of dissonance for the reader.

 Another major failure is the book’s treatment of gender issues. Lowachee’s universe is what some have referred to as “post-feminist” – gender inequality is never overtly referred to and on the surface the reader comes across a selection of male and female doctors, soldiers, diplomats and so on in the supporting cast. However, thematically, the book undermines this premise and in terms of world-building the military – just like in Warchild, where it played an even bigger role – is never convincingly a gender integrated force.

 The reason this ends up being a huge disappointment is that it frames Ryan’s coming-of-age journey as his path to “becoming a man” and specifically attaining the “proper” attributes of masculinity. Ryan’s mother and grandmother, who raised him de facto, are blamed for all his faults and failings as a human being. They, along with every other major and minor female character in the book, represent the Realm of Women, a place characterized by prejudice, fear, anxiety, indecisiveness, insecurity and cowardice. In the realm of women there is no hierarchy, no order, no structure and all of these are blamed for Ryan’s ineptitude.

Songlian is an accomplished businesswoman born into money and status, but she’s too out of touch with her only son to see that her career is hurting him (as if intent on incorporating every cliché, Lowachee paints her as indeed being “too busy” to care for Ryan, despite having a relatively low-pressure career, while Cairo, a frontlines, wartime general, manages just fine). Ryan’s grandmother, a famous diplomat, is incapable of truly understanding Ryan’s circumstances, along with Ryan’s girlfriend and every other woman he knows. This is because in the Realm of Women, surely there can be no place for a man to go through his struggles.

 Ryan’s best friend is his bodyguard, Sid, the only constant male presence in his life. Somewhere between a nanny and a willing accomplice, Sid is still under the authority of Ryan’s female caretakers, officially, and so can not, under these conditions, truly do for Ryan what the narrative tells us must be done. This is where Ryan’s father (and grandfather, who also joins the “Macedon” crew eventually) comes in. He belongs to the Realm of Men, where boys take up arms and wear uniforms, where they learn to take orders and sacrifice for the greater good, where there are boundaries and everything is always in its proper place. In this supposedly post-gender-oppression society, although we have a few women in supporting roles on board the “Macedon”, the military is still coded as overwhelmingly male, and assigned every positive quality.

 I would like to point out that Warchild, where the treatment of the military was, in my opinion, problematic but didn’t constitute a major world building flaw, was a story about Boy Things. Its protagonists were male because it was a story about being male. Female characters were believably present in the background, and believably given lesser roles in the main character’s POV. Burndive, on the other hand, is a story about Various Things that for some reason only lets the boys play in the sandbox.

Ironically, the book starts out by positioning Ryan as the opposite of Warchild’s POV protagonist, Jos. Where Jos was a soldier by choice and found true peace and comfort in discipline, hierarchy and order, Ryan’s personality rebels at structure. Ryan initially refuses to train in combat, wear a uniform or carry a weapon. He stands up to his father and seems to be poised to make the journey to true adulthood on his own terms, as a civilian. It is at this point in the book that the reader may expect Ryan to think back on his life and reflect on his relationship with his mother. How he’d taken her for granted, how he’d resisted all her attempts to nudge him in the right direction while still respecting his autonomy. It seems that Ryan’s poised to create a synthesis of his parents’ view points to help him overcome his chronic inaction and passiveness. But instead the book veers away from this direction and chooses to let Ryan accept his father’s way as the Only One True Way, eventually accepting as much military doctrine and protocol into his life as he can without actually enlisting.

The thematic simplification of Ryan’s arc is especially disappointing in light of how well Lowachee draws Ryan’s character, how vivid and enticing his narrative voice is, how unique and unusual he is in the landscape of science fiction protagonists.

Without a doubt, Lowachee’s greatest strength as an author is the voice of her POV characters. Ryan’s voice, his internal monologue, his descriptive narrative, is the heart and soul of this book. It was ultimately a presence strong and entertaining enough to keep me reading this book despite its flaws. Ryan is spoiled and childish, he makes you want to slap him and shake him and tell him to get over himself already, but then he is also clever and amusing and absolutely outrageous and fun. He flirts, jokingly and otherwise, with his bodyguard, his celebrity friends, his mother’s colleagues, even his father. He makes inappropriate jokes and punches people he doesn’t agree with. As someone who enjoyed Warchild immensely, chiefly for the distinct voice of its protagonist, I was shocked at how completely different Lowachee managed to make this story from that one. Where Jos’ feelings were always buried under layers of discipline and denial, where the book was an exercise in seeing past the protagonist’s own levels of denial and self-deception, Burndive is the polar opposite.

Whatever Ryan’s going through, it’s always right there on the surface. It’s almost like he’s incapable of hiding. Ryan spends hours crying in his bedroom when he’s sad, he has several temper tantrums in public, he violates social protocol to degrees that make the reader uncomfortable. At his best, Ryan enacts scenes that feel almost too intimate, too awkward to witness. It’s that ability to lead the reader to those unusual, uncomfortable places that is, to me, the character’s greatest strength.  It isn’t often I get to read a science fiction novel that’s heavy on the world building and action but also manages to truly astound me with its characterization choices, and Burndive (like Warchild) is definitely one of those rare finds.

 Another strength of the book – and here I must confess I’m not sure whether this will have an equally strong appeal for readers who are unfamiliar with Warchild – is that the second half is made up almost entirely of scenes where Ryan interacts with characters from Lowachee’s previous novel. If you, like me, Warchild, due to being so tightly-paced, hardly had time to revel in the marvelous supporting characters it introduced, you’re in for a treat. In Burndive new readers as well as Lowachee fans can fully enjoy the complexity and interactions of “Macedon”‘s crew. Corporal Dorr, who makes it a rule to either insult or hit on every officer he meets (occasionally both), Evan, a survivor of sexual and physical abuse who’s finally acclimated himself to life on a battleship, Aki, the only medic with a head on her shoulders, and Jos, the mysterious, enemy-trained Boy Wonder, finally have pages upon pages to lounge about, argue, get themselves in and out of trouble, and function like the very loving, dysfunctional family that they are.

 In conclusion I would consider this book is a poor sequel to Warchild and a terrible introduction to Lowachee as an author. I would suggest starting with one of her other novels and reading Burndive only when one is familiar enough with the characters and the world to make the effort worth it regardless. Lowachee’s greatest strengths shine as usual in this book – the distinctive first person narrative, the descriptions of close knit communities living in confined spaces – but in every other aspect, such as worldbuilding, structure and plot, it fails to deliver.

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