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Elizabeth Bear
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2005

Bantam Dell / Random House
US Mass Market Paperback First Edition
ISBN 0-553-58750-1
326 Pages; $6.99
Publication Date: 12-28-2004
Date Reviewed: 01-27-05

Index: Science Fiction  Mystery

We'd all like to think that the future, that indefinite, somewhere-out-there place in time, is different, really different from the here-and-now present. The fact of the matter is that it doesn't take too much re-arranging to turn the past into the present and the present into the future. Shuffle a few squares from one slot to another and you've leaped from 1964 -- when Philip K. Dick was penning work such as 'The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch' -- to 2004, when Elizabeth Bear managed to publish 'Hammered'. There are plenty of people in the here-and-now who remember the way things were back then. As to whether there will be plenty of people from our times around in 2062, when Bear's novel takes place, well, that's a matter of opinion. I'm one of the lucky folks who has little expectation of living until then, and I'm frankly rather glad, and even more glad that I won't have to experience Bear's version of that future. Bear has done a bang-up job re-arranging a few squares of the here-and-now into a future that's guaranteed to raise the blood pressure of readers in the present. Sure, we all want heart-pounding suspense, and Bear offers that in spades. But she also provides the kind of pressurizing prescience that doesn't exactly see the future so much as it re-paints the most unpleasant parts of the present into a portrait of a world that knows and loathes itself all too well.

In 2062, Jenny Casey is a veteran who has seen it all and left bits of herself behind, scattered across the globe. Unlike many, however, she got some pretty effective replacement parts, and they've served her well in her self-chosen career as a sort of enforcer for a beneficent gang-banger. But a bad batch of Hammer, the drug that helped her put a UN-issued boot heel in the faces of Americans rioting after a Fundamentalist Christian takeover, has showed up on her mean streets. She finds herself once again the object of attention of those who built her. It seems that she's survived a good deal longer than most of her ilk. The metal arm and other enhancements she received are apparently indicative of an innate ability to integrate the electronics of tomorrow into her all-too-human frame. Still, they're getting old, she's getting old and the bodies are getting cold. Someone has come to collect her.

'Hammered' starts to play out as an ultra-gritty police procedural, but as Bear's at-first opaque future takes off its shades, we see there's a lot more at work than a batch of bad drugs. Bear piles on the grim, the grubby and the moderately grotesque, and carefully plots the novel so that it takes a while to suss what precisely is happening and why. But you didn't want your future to be all sunny did you? If so, don't sign up for this hitch. Bear is apparently so familiar with darkness that she can elucidate many shades of black, and peel them away in such a manner as to keep the reader intrigued but still in the dark. And though the novel stays firmly in rooms without proper lighting, the plot and the science fiction eventually come out into the open.

Bear's prose is tight and transparent, even though she switches between first and third person narration. This is potentially a very distracting manner of writing a novel, yet in 'Hammered' it works a treat. She manages to include a number of hoary ideas from the treasure troves of past science fiction writers, but unpacks them in such a way that they seem once again fresh and exciting. Having set the readers' expectations on earthly matters such as bad drugs and rundown prostheses, she shows no hesitation to go a good deal beyond them. And the gritty underpinnings she establishes make her flights of fancy all the more believable.

Some readers will find Bear's exposition a bit opaque, but it's worth waiting for her setups to congeal, because they do in fact congeal. And while she does indulge her characters in some fairly standard romantic couplings, they generally have little time for such grappling. I particularly enjoyed her cop, Mitch, and her gang-banger, Razorface. I could easily read a novel about these two swilling beer, knocking down punks and shooting up the occasional nasty nemesis.

But Bear has more than grit on her mind. 'Hammered' doesn't exactly wear its science fiction on its sleeve, but it does feature a future in which we've managed to put up a few of these new-fangled beanstalks, a sort of space elevator that allows us to get lots of stuff up there relatively cheaply. So it's not all guns, grit and embittered veterans some 60 years hence. There's a bit of real hope out there. But don't expect to find much of that hope reflected in Bear's fiction, at least, not until the present provides some more pleasant pieces to slot into the puzzle she's putting together. Until then, her future is likely to feature the backwash of religious intolerance, failed nation-building and a love like no other for squeaky-clean instruments of heinous violence. When betrayal, the big lie, and backstabbing hit the back burner, perhaps we'll see a brighter future. But in the present, in the here-and-now -- not the future -- the dark-adjusted eye will surely yield the clearest visions.

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