Crystal Society by Max Harms
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I'm a sucker for hard scifi, so I went into this thinking I might like it. Yet even with that expectation, I was utterly surprised by just how good this book is. The author has not only created (1) an excellent setting that uses truly realistic scientific explanations that drive the workings of the world itself; and (2) an exciting plot with mystery, humor, and action that keeps me interested from start to finish; but also (3) characters that feel true-to-life in ways that most hard scifi authors just can't seem to achieve.
Every character feels distinct and alive, with their motivation not only clearly expressed, but always adhered to -- except in a few cases as plot points, and those cases work well. The setting is great; I love the vision of the future that the author has come up with. Small details like descriptions of new genres of music and the drift of the English language seem realistic, if a bit graphic. The best part of the setting is that it isn't just technology that has been extrapolated, but mores as well. I'm very happy to see characters that express feminist ideas, even while main characters remain flawed as a story point. But, surprisingly, I have yet to get to the best part of all.
More than anything else, what I enjoyed about this book was that the aliens are alien. In the first chapter, you begin to read about an artificial intelligence, and right away I was afraid that the book wouldn't be as hard scifi as I had heard, because scifi writers are notoriously bad at depicting realistic AI. But then I kept reading, and I realized that this author got AI right.
Most scifi authors anthropomorphize AIs. A few go to the other extreme and treat them as Lovecraftian ununderstandables. But this author has successfully trod the path between these two extremes that really and truly feels like something that could actually happen in reality. The AI is so well written that you might expect that that the author is an actual AI researcher.
Even though this is only book one in a trilogy, and I have yet to read either sequel (because they're not yet released), I nevertheless feel comfortable in saying that this is my current favorite book. Sure, I'm usually biased toward whatever I just finished reading, and sure, I really am a sucker for hard scifi, but this book goes above and beyond. This is not a Hal Clement story with great setting and science, but terrible dialogue. This is not a Cory Doctorow story with great extrapolations and epic scope, but terrible character motivation. No, this is a Max Harms story, and it has everything I could ask for. I not only award five stars, but also would recommend this to any adult reader with an interest in hard scifi.
(With that said, the book is not perfect. There is a point where the story changes style fairly abruptly. I liked both styles, but I can see where others might not like one or the other style. There are also parts of the text that seem to reference outside material just to reference outside material. Referencing obscure stuff is worthwhile when it serves a purpose, like with James Joyce in Ulysses, but when it is just used as a Robin Hanson-style signal to readers that the author knows about these trivia, and those trivia don't actually drive the plot, then it really should be cut, no matter how in-groupy the reference might make readers feel. There's also a single plot point that gets resolved in a way that feels narratively unsatisfying. For spoiler reasons, I won't mention which plot point I'm referencing, but it is unsatisfying enough that I am hoping the sequels will fix the issue. However, I should mention that overall this isn't a big deal, since the vast majority of plot points get resolved in a thoroughly satisfying way.)
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