Author: Katharine Kerr
Details: (c) Katharine Kerr 1991; Pub HarperCollins Voyager 1996; ISBN 0-586-20789-9
Verdict: Polar City blues is a thumping good story, in spite of technical flaws.
Reasons for reading it: cartesiandaemon recommended it, albeit with some reservations. We've mostly run out of books that we absolutely must press on eachother right now, but still like raiding eachother's libraries anyway.
How it came into my hands: cartesiandaemon lent it to me.
Polar City blues is nothing to write home about; it does the expected thing with a bunch of standard SF tropes. If I told you it's a murder mystery that turns out to be a political assassination, set on a planet inhabited by humans and humanoid aliens, and fought over by various interplanetary alliances, you'd probably be able to predict most of it. Oh, and it has psionics and sentient AIs and the ultimate SF cliche, flying cars. And the writing and characterisation are somewhat clunky. Even though it's not particularly original, it's a good example of what it is, and really drew me into the story. I cared enough about it to want to go back to reading when I was supposed to be doing other things, and that's a big merit in any novel.
I liked the urban-ness of the city, where there are lots of complex interactions and a sense of economics and civics and things matter which aren't directly part of the protagonists' personal lives. The handling of race is very earnest, but not excellent; it's a bit self-consciously multicultural, which I suppose is better than being only about white Americans. The problem is that the role reversal where white people are mostly the underclass and black people have most of the influence in society and some of them are racist while others are tolerant is a bit too simplistic, and there isn't really a sense that the black-dominated society has a distinct culture, it's just a film negative version of Hollywood style America. Also, everybody is either very dark black or obviously European white. Most of the characters use Spanish slang but there's only one very minor Latino character, and no characters at all who are Asian or mixed, and everybody is definitely American. The language is supposed to be a version of LA street slang, but even though this is not a dialect I have much experience of, it's obvious that Kerr has a tin ear for language. Her characters use negations in a way that makes no grammatical sense, it's not even grammatical bad grammar, IYSWIM.
Similarly with gender; it's trying, and it's not egregiously sexist, and there are female characters in major roles. But gender roles and relationship styles are still pretty much like late twentieth century middle class America. That said, the love story arc is rather sweet, and the multiple viewpoints as well as the story obviously caring about everybody in its large cast mean that there's no sense that "getting the girl" is a prize for the male romantic lead; we see the development of a two-way relationship. The other thing that's done well is the description of AIs just reaching the sentience tipping point; it's nothing incredibly original, but there's some pathos behind the retelling of this standard trope. And there are some nice bits of cross-cultural communication, which is the sort of thing I like in space opera.
It's the kind of book that people who "hate SF" would probably hate. But I think it would be very much appreciated by an unsophisticated teenage geek reader, the kind who was in love with all things alien and spaceship. And, well, if it's not perfect on diversity issues at least it's not hopelessly dated either.