Marissa Carter,
The Turning
(Writers Club, 2000)

The Turning is a difficult book to describe, since it begins in a "hard" SF style but abruptly changes to a religious, new-age theme midbook, ending with a destroyed then renewed world which a handful of survivors elected by God will enjoy as a utopia.

I have a soft spot for hard science fiction. I know some of its authors are weak on character development, with stories and novels populated by paperdolls who enjoy telling each other all the scientific details they both know, at length and at the drop of a hat (well, when needed to explain the science in the plot). The best hard SF authors are better than this, of course, but when the ideas are interesting or provocative and rooted in scientific plausibility (if not accuracy), I can tolerate and even find amusement in these cliches. I wasn't put off by them here, although they were heavy-handed. In fact, I enjoyed some of them -- how often, even in hard SF, does one encounter the wafting of perfume described in terms of the Brownian motion of gases? If the purpose of descriptive passages is to evoke a common experience in an unexpected way, Marissa Carter has succeeded with scientific detail in surprising contexts, rather than relying on standard phrasings like "wafting scents."

While this sort of discord with expectations was fun, other wrong notes were struck on the very first page and continued throughout the book. Carter does not read enough, I suspect; she often chooses words very oddly, as if she has a general idea what they mean but not a clear enough one to use them appropriately. For example, I think she used "deemed" when she meant "deigned" when she wrote "Strangers that wouldn't have deemed to speak to each other...." This one may have been an error induced by spellchecking; others seemed to be characteristic of what I call "thesaurus abuse," when people use synonyms found in a thesaurus without knowing their usual contexts and implications. Some of the errors were howlingly funny; at one point walls badly cracked by an earthquake were described as sufficient to keep "an army of plasterers at bay" -- I believe Carter meant "busy," not "cornered and forced to fight at close quarters!"

The Unitarian minister who was key in leading the survivors through the apocalypse was another wrong note. She was introduced in the midst of a crisis of faith of a sort Unitarian ministers would be particularly unlikely to have. Unitarian ministers are not necessarily even theists; of all denominations, they are the least likely to interpret a series of tragedies in their families as the result of personal persecution by God and/or the work of Satan. Ruth's crisis and her reaction to it would be plausible in almost any Protestant denomination except for Unitarian, so I am baffled by Carter's choice. I can only believe she chose it at random or through very cursory research.

Hard SF, like mystery fiction, seems to need an author who is willing to carefully plot out events, ensuring that the plot hangs together and includes the genre requirements, like scientifically plausible problems and solutions. This need may be why these are difficult genres to write; they don't allow the author much spontaneity, at least in the plot, and demand that the ending be consistent with and prefigured in the beginning. I think that Carter got stuck in the hard SF requirements of her initial idea, and so used a deus ex machina of sorts to resolve the difficulties.

The premise is based on a theory about changes in the Earth's axis, poles and magnetic field. I don't know how possible this is, but the beginning of the book clothes it in sufficient scientific plausibility to allow the suspension of disbelief. It's believable that changes in the Earth's axis could cause changes in sea level, flooding some areas and drying others. It is not plausible to me that this could cause the mile-deep flooding of almost the entire North American continent -- which is, I suppose, why Carter changed it to an Act of God rather than the result of the initial premise of the book. After that, when Carter decided that only those with the exactly appropriate type of spirituality would survive even of those who managed to get to the mountains before the flood, it wasn't entirely unexpected although still offensive; her careful choice of racial diversity in the entirely North American survivors seemed but a gesture towards tolerance.

I wish Carter had stayed with her initial setup throughout the book. The combination of real-world changes, a radical premise that may explain them better then the accepted theory, and academic and scientific infighting as the theories vie for supremacy was fascinating, although the Bad Guys seemed to be a little too bad; I find it difficult to believe that an old-school scientist would work to suppress upstarts in full knowledge that they may well be right. They're much more likely to convince themselves that the upstarts have no basis at all, not wanting either to cede their place in scientific discovery nor to be known only for fighting a losing battle against the truth. Nonetheless, the infighting was interestingly portrayed, and sounded like Carter knew about it from experience.

I've tried, but cannot imagine who could love this book. The people who would find the ending satisfying would be too bored to get to it through the hard SF beginning and middle, while those who enjoy or tolerate the hard SF style would be likely to be bored and offended when it is abandoned in favor of fuzzy mysticism. I will say in all sincerity that one cannot guess what will happen next; unfortunately, this is almost entirely due to the midstream change in course rather then carefully built suspense. If Carter plans to author more books, I hope she prepares by reading extensively herself to broaden her competence in word usage, and works through at least one of the many excellent books on authoring novels to gain skill in the other needed aspects. The initial idea was a good one, and I would have enjoyed a better book based on it.

[ by Amanda Fisher ]

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