Two spies, one trained in the art of lying and the other in the art of reading people for signs of subterfuge, have been sent to steal alien technology from Amazonia, a planet ruled by man-enslaving lesbians. Our spies are emissaries from a male-dominated, interplanetary government ruled by ruthless artificial intelligences who enforce carbon neutrality on all worlds by genociding any group that uses too much energy. Their hope is that the alien technology can end the eco-fascist reign of terror by providing an infinite source of renewable energy. This premise for Elizabeth Bear's novel Carnival, published a little over a year ago, is so intriguing that you'll keep reading just to watch the fine machinery of her thought experiment unfold.
Bear, whose books come out so quickly that you'll blink and miss one, is famous for combining high-octane military/spy tales with eccentric and subversive subplots. In last year's Undertow a traditional actioner turns out to hinge on the politics of mining practices. And in her recently-released Dust, a battle for power on board a ship that's traveled for generations is full of little kinks that make her characters stand out as intensely realistic in unrealistic surroundings.
But back to Carnival, a novel where all the traditional ideas of liberal science fiction like matriarchies and ecotopias are turned on their heads. When lesbians rule a planet, they don't create peace and harmony: they become obsessed with guns and honor and dueling. They enslave all men (except homosexuals, whom they call "gentles"), using them to breed and for labor. And they engage in brutal guerilla warfare to gain power in government.
The novel's back story, though dealt with only cursorily (which is too bad), is even more interesting. A group of radical eco-liberationists create these super-powered AIs designed to reduce Earth's carbon footprint no matter what it takes. So the AIs proceed to kill the entire human population of the Northern Hemisphere, getting rid of all the white people they can. They continue to do regular "assessments" of the human population, killing anyone who takes too much energy without giving back to the society in some significant way. All breeding and energy consumption are strictly controlled. Everyone must be a vegan or die. To escape, humans begin populating other planets where they can use more energy without getting "assessed."
Meanwhile, the human population becomes more conservative, outlawing homosexuality because everyone has become so obsessed with a desire to breed in the face of massive birth control programs. Anyone who challenges the idea of reproductive sex becomes, ironically, suspect. Bear's idea that an eco-regime like this would breed conservatism rather than progressivism is really quite smart, and world-building junkies like me will love her careful attention to how ideologies might evolve over time.
And for those who could give a crap about world-building, well you're in luck too. Most of the narrative is about Vincent and Michelangelo, two super-spies on Amazonia posing as diplomats. They're lovers, which makes them outcasts in their own culture but ideal for this mission since the only males the Amazonians tolerate are gay ones.
As they get embroiled in local politics and factions, as well as meeting the AI ghosts of the aliens who occupied Amazonia before — leaving their energy-generators behind — the plot thickens and there are some genuinely cool spy vs. counter-spy vs. counter-counter-spy moments. Some of the Amazonians want to help the spies because they want to keep Amazonia free of the eco-facists, and others want to help bring in the eco-fascists in order to liberate the enslaved men. Plus, there's pistol dueling.
Unfortunately, sometimes the spy stuff gets so thick that it veers into being incoherent, especially since Vincent and Michelangelo are doing missions they have to keep secret from each other. There are actually passages where you can't figure out who is spying on whom, and that can be a problem when you've already got a lot of confusing alien stuff happening too.
But what pleases about this novel, and the reason I'd recommend it as a good way to get into one of the most prolific and exciting science fiction writers working today, is that it manages to do what so few SF novels can. That is, it offers an intriguing, intellectually-rewarding glimpse at one human possible future while also telling a rip-roaring yarn. No, it's not terribly realistic. Most of Bear's other books have a strong dose of fantasy, and you can tell she's used to explaining tech via magic rather than hard science. But as a thought-experiment, Carnival is a great success, and a good rejoinder to the greenies in these eco-obsessed times.