Queen of Angels — Greg Bear

Queen of Angels is about lonliness, murder, and the kind of mental trickeries you need to survive. It’s also about a world where therapy has become mandatory. The untherapied live in the shade of the combs, outside the luxurious world of the privileged and the mentally fit. However, murder has struck inside the combs. Emmanuel Goldsmith, the acclaimed poet, has killed several of his protegees, and has now disappeared.

This is not a whodunit. Mary Choy, the principal investigator of this case, determines early on that Goldsmith’s the most likely candidate. She’s a transform — she’s no longer quite human. She’s upgraded her human body into that of the ideal policewoman — her feet are naturally tougher, she can stay awake much longer, and can control her temperature and breathing.* Transforms are the site of much controversy in this world. People hate Mary and often lust for her at the same time. This is especially interesting because her transform makes her black. She’s not brown. She’s black like a shiny black rock. Goldsmith is also black — but in the biological, African Diaspora way. He thinks of himself as a black skinned white man, which parallels how Mary is an artificially black skinned white woman. Unlike Goldsmith, though, Mary’s entering into Otherness doesn’t give her a complex. This was a bit troubling for me, since basically one of the more prominent characters of color has a deep-rooted racial melancholy that eventually drives him insane. I couldn’t tell if Bear was being problematic, or really cleverly indicting racism as a cause of mental pathology. I mean, seriously, all the therapy in the world won’t help you permanently if you live in a racist society. You still have to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune once you leave the safe space of your counselor’s office.

Anyways, Mary’s got to go to Hispaniola to track down Goldsmith. Choy’s a fun character. She’s very professional, not defined by her relationship to her BF, and LOVES her job. She’s cool under pressure, and manages to be the only ethical person in the entire investigation. I loved her. I especially loved the little asides about her transform. She’s the only person in the entire novel who is comfortable with who she chooses to be.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Goldsmith has actually gone to one of his publishers (whose daughter he, y’know, brutally murdered) and has turned himself into custody. This publisher has brought on Martin Burke and Carol Neuman, two awesome psychologists, to enter Goldsmith’s mind and figure out why he’d commit such a crime. They do and they discover that pathology is terrifyingly contagious. :intones: They now know what evil lurks in the hearts of men! Anyways, this side story was a bit less compelling than that of Richard Fettle, one of Goldsmith’s untherapied friends, and Jill, the AI project grappling with self-hood. Both of these characters struggle to emerge from the shadows of some of their greatest influences. More importantly, they do so without the soothing panacea of therapy. For Jill, this means accepting fear and unfairness as some of the defining aspects of self-consciousness. For Fettle, this means accepting that someone who’s your friend can do some astonishingly cruel things.

All this, set in the eve of 2047… the binary millenium.

Queen of Angels (Questar science fiction)

*Also: she can control her nipples, her fertility, and her level of arousal. I thought it was interesting that even though her being a transform wasn’t overtly about sexual freedom/choice, it gave her more opportunities professionally and greater agency in her personal life.

Comments

  1. says

    This is a book I loved very much when I read it a few years ago. I very much second what you’ve said here. I wanted very much to take the skin color presentation as “cleverly indicting racism as a cause of mental pathology”, but more problematic interpretations are possible, too.

    (Also, do we ever find out what Mary’s original ethnicity/skin color was? I remember thinking “Choy” might indicate she was of Asian descent, and had she erased that to become a person without race, and if so, what did that mean? But I can’t recall now whether we get the answer to any of that.)

    I may re-read this one. I adore Bear’s work.

  2. The OTHER Maria says

    She refers once to her “round, oriental face” fading into her darker self, so I read her as Asian.

  3. says

    Maria, I think Jennifer’s question comes from when you say here:

    If she is of Asian descent (which was how I read her from bits and pieces Bear puts into the narrative), wouldn’t she already be defined as Other, and the shift she makes as a transform be different?

    I read and liked QoA in college; as for series, there’s Slant, which was very good, but for some reason I’ve never finished it…

  4. says

    (Let’s try this again without my HTML fail.)

    Maria, I think Jennifer’s question comes from when you say here:
    He thinks of himself as a black skinned white man, which parallels how Mary is an artificially black skinned white woman. Unlike Goldsmith, though, Mary’s entering into Otherness doesn’t give her a complex.

    If she is of Asian descent (which was how I read her from bits and pieces Bear puts into the narrative), wouldn’t she already be defined as Other, and the shift she makes as a transform be different?

    I read and liked QoA in college; as for the series, I know there’s Slant, which was very good, but for some reason I’ve never finished it…

    • The OTHER Maria says

      Hmmm. Here’s why I’m not gonna go back and correct myself: I want to be really honest about my thoughts about the racial dynamics of this book, since it’s so complex.

      The allusions to Mary being Asian are really, really subtle. The most explicit one is the one I mentioned about her face being round and oriental. In that quote, oriental isn’t capitalized, so when I first read it, I really didn’t notice it, especially since other references mention that her bio-family is very Christian, which is something I associate with whiteness. Also, the fact that Mary herself didn’t mention that she felt Othered before her transform made me think that. In looking over the text to answer JK’s question, I realized, oh, she was originally Asian… which might be interesting in terms of her transform making her a visible Other. I wonder if there’s an argument to be made there about passing, and about the invisibility of Asian American characters in SF? It’d certainly allay my concerns about sanity and POC.

  5. says

    Well, I don’t think there’s any call for you to “correct yourself” at all. I always felt there was an uncomfortable interpretation in which Mary benefited from erasing her race (as well as other non-race-specific characteristics that influenced people’s first impressions of her, such as height). OTOH, changing your appearance DOES change people’s impressions, and where do you draw the line on when it’s appropriate to do that (say, dressing “appropriately” for various occasions) and when it’s wrong? Same debate goes on in my head about cosmetic surgery. Is it wrong to buckle under social pressure and get enormous breasts? And if so, is it also wrong to get an eyelid tuck because looking younger is advantageous in an ageist society?

    And on the other other hand, it’s not like she transformed herself to look more white. It’s more like she took race out of the equation. Which could still be read as “solving problems by overcoming your undesirable ethnicity”, but can also be read as the author asking, “What would happen if we no longer had reliable visual cues to pre-judge people by?”

    So I still agree with you that it might be problematic, or not. Hard to guess what Bear’s intent was, other than perhaps to make people think. (“Vitals” also left me debating in my head for days.)

  6. The OTHER Maria says

    Yeah, it’s a lot to think of. Speaking of elective surgery, what did you think of the tennis/boob/surgery link in the link dump earlier today?

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