Scardown is a substantial step up from Hammered. Elizabeth Bear has begun to find her own voice here. The too-earnest fidelity to her influences that made her first novel's story and setting feel a little shopworn is less apparent. But Bear's blistering cynicism about humanity's future has, if anything, gotten a reboot. Scardown's future is one in which the ecologically-abused Earth is down to about another century of life expectancy. The discovery of faster-than-light — or, in the book's inspired wording, sneakier-than-light — alien vessels buried on Mars has provided us with an escape route. But it hasn't quelled our aggressions, our nationalism or our xenophobia, the latter of which we still direct towards one another more than any visitors from the stars.
Jenny Casey has had most of the physical scarring of her body modifications removed. But the deeper emotional scars remain, not only from the violent outcome of the events of Hammered, but from her continued concern over her own ability to meet the demands of everyone who is now relying on her. Added to this is a new generation of young pilots, nanite-modified as she was, training to fly the new generation of starships modeled after the technology of the alien Benefactors. Two of these trainees are the daughters of Jenny's lover Gabe Castaign, and one is the daughter of Frederick Valens, Jenny's erstwhile boss. One of my critiques of Hammered was that Valens was a comparatively weak character. He's still very much a supporting player here, but Bear is more successful this time at fleshing him out to three dimensions, especially as Scardown sees Valens undergoing his own process of redemption, of making personal restitution for his past deeds.
The series' political backstory is, I must confess, quite complicated, to the point where these books become one of those trilogies best read back-to-back. As it's been two years since I read Hammered, I found myself having to go back both to my earlier review, as well as skimming some passages from the book itself, to reacquaint myself with the complexities of Bear's plot. Once I did so, the depth to which Bear has constructed her near-future became really impressive, with the rivalry between China and Canada, as well as specific factions within Canada (those fighting to keep the spaceflight/colonization program alive, versus the inevitable group of denialists who insist on fixing problems at home first), giving the story a gratifying dimension. Bear brings back some of the first book's more appealing supporting characters — the ex-gang leader Razorface, bent on avenging his friends killed by the company responsible for leaking the Hammer drug to the streets; the charming AI patterned after Richard Feynman, who's actually starting to sound a little like his namesake — and the resulting subplots add their depth to the narrative as well.
Bear's evolution as a writer in the short time between Hammered and Scardown means that the sequel feels more solidly realized as a hard-SF techno-thriller, where the earlier book felt like it spent more time than it should in homage to Bear's influences. Not only that, but we see the whole trilogy shifting its focus from gritty action-oriented post-cyberpunk to revisionist new space opera while keeping its overall tone consistent. Traditionally space opera takes an optimistic view of humanity's future. In Scardown, the human race is attempting to escape to the stars, not out of a bold, forward-thinking sense of adventure and discovery, but as a last-ditch, desperate act of species survival with no guarantees in place. And our age-old predilection for conflict and self-destruction is what stands in our way yet again.
Still, I suppose Bear can't be counted out as an optimist, because ultimately Scardown deals with individual responsibility and sacrifice. Whatever insanity governments and armies and corporations may get up to, there's always the chance that a single person can make a difference, even a very tiny one. And even if there's no possibility of making a difference, that's no excuse not to try. Whatever problems the early scenes of this novel had in being too focused on plot minutiae, it's all mitigated by the dramatically forceful final hundred pages, in which a global disaster manages to be, if not averted, at least ameliorated by a couple of acts of individual courage. With all of our failings, our paranoia and stupidity as a species, there's still something about us that says we deserve to survive, that we're worth saving. It's a fine coda to this gripping and exciting saga.