Conscience of the Beagle, by Patricia Anthony

I commented a while back on how it was odd that Patricia Anthony had disappeared from the SF scene, after having been such a rock star through the 90s. That was when I happened to decide I would check out whatever of her work I could get my hands on, other than what I already had (which was, at the time, only Flanders and God’s Fires — books I have yet to get to).

beaglercovConscience of the Beagle is a slim book, and one that I recognized immediately as something I’d read back in Canada, though I couldn’t recall what happened in the story. It’s not hard to see why Anthony would have gotten rave reviews, writing novels like this one, but it’s also not hard to see why some people–those who read SF expecting it not to work like other literature–might not have missed her when she stopped writing novels.

It’s one of those books I really love, which is one thing on the surface, but many other things just beneath. The surface is a police procedural set on a colony planet run by religious fanatics. But the colony planet could just as easily be small-town (and small-city) America, and Earth could just as easily be the big city; that’s the kind of cultural difference Anthony is exploring.

The planet, called Tennyson, isn’t quite as much a mess as the Earth, and the crazy people running it also turn out to be not quite as much of a mess as the (rather unbalanced) cops sent to “assist” in the investigation. But of course, I’m getting ahead of myself, and would like to warn against spoilers, even though the book was published in 1993.

You have been warned.

Right, so another thing is: this is a book about sorrow, and pain, and about being screwed over. It’s also about assumptions, and how they are often not just wrong, but blinding.

Someone described the prose in this book as “creamy” and there’s a sense in which that is exactly right. I happen to be brewing a beer up — the wort is building up to a boil at the moment — and the sugar I’ll be adding is Indonesian gula a palm sugar that is very rich and creamy. And the thing about a creamy substance is: you’re aware of it. Patricia Anthony–the thoughtful, wordsmithing author–is as present in this text as the poet of Beowulf is in his text. You hear the alliterations clang together, clang, clang, clang, like metal being worked into a fine, gorgeous, terrifying weapon. Anthony’s presence is less overt, but just as powerful.

For one thing, she does little things with the prose that few authors do, though they could. They don’t, because of course they’re hoping not to jolt the reader out of the text. Anthony does it because she is willing to take that risk, because she knows the story is compelling enough for the reader to be drawn back. It’s a very interesting thing to watch happening.

Above all, it’s a study of characters, especially of the dishonesty of characters to themselves, about denial and about fooling oneself; about sorrow and about power.

Beyond that, it has one of the more interesting uploaded-mind characters I’ve run across: the Beagle, which is the remnant personality of a genius investigator, whose mind indeed was uploaded before age and perhaps illness (or perhaps something more sinister?) robbed him of his investigative wits, and who is trapped in the body of an android. The investigator we know, of course, is in full possession of his senses, and pretty much always a step or two ahead of all the other characters, including the POV character, who outanks him on the mission, though not in general. Anthony manages to write the Beagle (which isn’t his real name) in a way that makes him interesting while also making him super-smart.

The other thing to note is Anthony’s insight into the hidden vulnerability of masculinity. From the narrator’s erotic obsession with another character, to his rigid suppression of his own emotions, the image that emerges is somehow quite convincing. This is not to say I’m surprised: why wouldn’t Anthony be able to write a male character that is both vulnerable in the ways men so often refuse to admit they are? But it is to say that it’s quite striking and believable.

In any case, this was a great book for me to start with in excavating Anthony’s work. I certainly feel a strong urge to go out and read more of her novels. I have a few on the shelf — I think, everything save Cold Allies. (I thought I’d brought it over but I seem not to have done so.) I think I’ll save Cradle of Splendor to read back-to-back with Ian McDonald’s Brasyl… and since I read Brother Termite long ago–it was amazing, but also the first of Anthony’s books I read–I think The Happy Policeman is probably next up…

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