Popping Eyeballs – Elizabeth Bear’s Undertow

Elizabeth Bear’s Undertow (a Philip K. Dick award finalist) is the book that fulfilled what I want in a book – it crystallized my amorphous ideas about what I wanted and literally showed me – it’s eyeball-popping finale really melded the book into a cohesive whole, tied up the loose ends, and gave me the thrill I needed. As an author, she has always satisfied me (her Jenny Casey trilogy), but in this book she was in top form – it’s semi-mystical beginnings, unsavory characters, and odd, Louisiana Bayou Company Town setting, plus a very unusual alien species, made the beginning questionable – what have I gotten my self into? Were Hammered, Scardown, and Worldwired a fluke – was that all she had? Well, Undertow answered that with a resounding NO!


In an interview with SciFI Wire (the SciFi channel’s on-line magazine), she gives an interview which states the book better than I ever could (http://www.scifi.com/scifiwire/index.php?category=5&id=43790):

“Multiple-award-winning SF&F author Elizabeth Bear told SCI FI Wire that her latest novel, Undertow, is about a conjure man, a woman with a past, a hit man and an amphibian with a price on its head.‘[They] run up against the government of a frontier world that is very much a company town writ large,’ Bear said in an interview. ‘The book has elements of old-fashioned planetary romance and colonial first-contact narrative, and it’s also got, I hope, some large-scale sweep and ‘sensawunda’ and cool ‘big ideas.’

Undertow grew out of the SF Bear read as a child, she said. ‘I think H. Beam Piper and Andre Norton and Ursula Le Guin, specifically, Bear said. ‘[It also grew out of] my love of caper plots and some ideas I have about ways that the information revolution may actually affect our lives, since I’m not a big believer in a transhuman future.’

One of the primary characters is a ‘data miner’ named Cricket Earl Murphy, Bear said. ‘[Her] claim to fame is that she can find out anything about anyone that has ever been recorded anywhere in known space, through access to a sort of quantum Internet called ‘connex,’ she said.

Another important character is André Deschênes, a paid assassin who is trying to get into another line of work, Bear said. ‘He wants to become a conjure man, which is to say he wants to learn techniques used to manipulate probability,’ she said.

Conjure men, also known as ‘god-botherers,’ are rogue probability engineers, Bear said. ‘They are persons who have the skills to affect the likelihood that a given set of events will take place—or fail to take place,’ she said.

The book takes place on a frontier world called Greene’s World, Bear said. ‘The major city is Novo Haven, which is—to all intents and purposes—a floating town, composed of hundreds or thousands of seaworthy vessels anchored together in shallow water, so that the entire municipality can be picked up and moved in case of violent weather,’ she said. ‘It’s a swampy, tidewater setting, and the planet has a mining economy wherein pretty much everyone works for the Greene family.’

Bear had to do a ton of research for the book—everything from physics and amphibian biology to geology, weather and tidal margins, she said. ‘One thing I did enjoy researching—and speculating about—was what the social structure of a hermaphroditic species with a cooperative reproductive pattern (as opposed to our own competitive model) might be,’ she said.

Bear added: ‘I [also] did a bunch of research on non-hemoglobin-based blood, on quantum uncertainty, on techniques of information storage and retrieval, on some of the work that’s being done in seamless virtual reality. Thank God for Google.'” —John Joseph Adams

One thing that stood out was that she used a different type of future – a non-Singularity future, which I enjoyed. So much SF these days, when dealing with the Far Future, uses that. But it is filled with lots of high-tech – wearables, the connex mentioned. Basically everyone, except a few who chose to live “off the grid” so to speak, are completely wired in – they get instant news, houses are responsive and security runs high. And the way the whole city/town can just pick up and move is sooo different. Even the aliens are (the information is dribbled out over the course of the novel) inventive and use all the possible elements that can be done – nothing about them are giant lizards, or talking trees.

A review by Paul DiFillipo for SciFI Weekly says:

WARNING: POSSIBLE MINOR SPOILERS (some of this gives away things you discover as the book moves through it’s fast pacing):

Living on the backwater of Greene’s World, André Deschênes is looking for a new line of work. He’s been a paid killer for most of his adult life, and he’s good at it. But since youth, his heart has really been set on becoming a ‘coincidence engineer.

The future star-spanning culture that André inhabits has tapped the powers of quantum uncertainty, you see. ‘Entangled’ technology underlies the Slide, which allows for teleportation of nonliving matter among all the scattered worlds of Rim and Core. (But the Slide is fatal to the quantum structures of sentient brains, and so passenger-carrying relativistic ships still ply the spacelanes as well.) But on the surface of planets, this probability tech—powered by tanglestone, a strange ‘natural’ resource—is mostly employed by the weird class of people known as “coincidence engineers.” By utilizing their skills as Heisenbergian observers, they can influence the very course of reality on levels small and large. No wonder André would like to become one.”

“Bear’s very neatly configured, compact and entertaining novel reminds me of the early novels of George R.R. Martin, back in the days when he used to write science fiction. Or, in a closer approximation to this book’s exact blend of readability, action, speculation and characterization, let me cite the prime mid-career work of Poul Anderson. Excluding its postmodern trappings of wiredness (a trope that’s well done, actually, convincingly showing us people who are used to being always online), this book might have come from the pen of Anderson during, say, the time he was writing The People of the Wind (1973).”

There has been some negative comparisons to The Secret, because, as she is not a quantum engineer, her explanations of some of it’s aspects used in the book are minimal – but as both a Hard SF nutcase, AND an under science-educated reader, it hit a chord – I loved not being overwhelmed with technical detail, but still be able to “follow” the idea behind the quantum theory, which is one of the reasons I got into Hard SF – Baxter’s Manifold: Space was full of mind-boggling stuff, and although I didn’t understand it all, I didn’t have to – the mere idea that these things exist, or are theorized to exist, is enough to set your world on end. And Di Filippo addresses that:

“I wonder if Bear’s ‘coincidence engineering’ is meant to tap into the popularity of The Secret (2006), that recent New Age ‘documentary’ [and the book] about wishing things true. If only everyone who saw that film could be encouraged to improve their minds with Bear’s book! Paul

Some reviews have focused on the use of the probability futures, and it’s cursory explanations – they want more detail. I, on the other hand, don’t need that – I just need the author to set me on the path, and get me fired up, and off I go. I LIKE not being in a lecture hall, but instead, given ideas that make me THINK, and want to run to my nearest Hawking book, or other QM one, and do some research on my own. Too much detail strays the story off it’s path, IMO.

Undertow set the bar quite high for me, which is probably why I’ve been so hard on A Fire Upon the Deep by Vinge. This book makes the others look amateurish, dull, wordy and unimaginative. Undertow accomplishes in it’s short (368) pages, what AFUTD (624) couldn’t do in almost twice the length.

I urge you to give it a try – if you’ve read the Casey trilogy, it’s nothing like it. This is NOT your grandmother’s book. It’s cool, mysterious, shadowy, full of fun, capers, plots and counter-plots, treason and treachery, and all set within an incredibly complex setting, more so as the book goes on, and as I have repeatedly said, the push to the ending is enough to make you think your trippin’.

So, do me and yourself a favor – if you like fresh, new, exciting, genre -bending SF/Fantasy (SFF), then read it. Support your local SF writer! If you prefer your SF to remain in it’s cozy, set genre, then don’t. See Subterranean Press’ interview with Bear for a fresh look at how she views the genre:


Have a wild ride (and stay on the horse – it might want to buck you off at first, but if you persevere, and are the kind of reader I mentioned, then the ride will be one worth all you’ve given it).


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