Living in space is hard. Like, really hard. Like, super almost-impossibly-crazy-stupid hard. Leviathan Wakes has some great moments that illustrate the various hazards of living in space, and it underscores the importance of Earth’s continued existence to the otherwise estranged colonies and stations. Yet even it has a fairly optimistic outlook on our ability to harness the solar system for our needs. Containment, on the other hand, makes even starting up a colony on Venus an issue. Christian Cantrell goes for brutal realism when it comes to some of the challenges facing the Venusian colonists, even if he is somewhat less realistic in the technology and plot of this story.
I found the technology in Containment somewhat paradoxical. They have quantum computers and nuclear fusion, but they still can’t communicate reliably with Earth? (There are other reasons for this, of course, but I won’t get into that.) And why does it take until someone like Arik comes along to develop artificial photosynthesis by using evolutionary algorithms? We already do that in robotics; why wouldn’t someone think to do that in biology?
I can set those nits aside, though. It’s clear Cantrell has done the research regarding trying to survive in an environment like that present on the surface of Venus. He has plenty of cool science-fictional ideas, ranging from genetic engineering to robotics and cybernetics. In many respects, Gen V reminds me of the Supers from Nancy Kress’ Beggars and Choosers—so advanced they leave their progenitors in the dust. But Containment isn’t a book about the complications surrounding genetic engineering, or even a book about the challenges facing our society in the future. The society of Earth in Containment is practically non-existent. As Arik works on solving the mystery he discovers after recovering from a near-fatal accident, he stumbles across a secret bigger than he would ever have imagined. Cantrell pulls an M. Night Shyamalan (literally) and turns our frame of reference on its head.
This twist should have been just another OMG moment in an already compelling story—except it wasn’t. As much as Containment is a clever vision that mixes environmental catastrophes with solar system colonization, Cantrell’s writing drags the story back down into mediocrity. His offense is one of the most mundane: telling rather than showing. In between chapters set in the present and flashbacks to the past, there are chapters consisting solely of infodumps about the colony and its history. Infodumps have their place in any story, and especially in science fiction, but there are classy infodumps with their own rooms and curtains that cover the window, and then there are the cheap, trashy infodumps that proposition you on a street corner while you drive by. Containment’s infodumps are, sadly, of the latter variety: very plain, by the book, and with all-too-little sex appeal. They read like something straight out of the backgrounder wiki or bible that writers often prepare for themselves prior to writing a story. Thus, while the infodumps unquestionably contain cool ideas and tantalizing visions of the future, they quench any momentum the story has developed and bring the plot to a grinding halt.
Showing cedes the floor to telling elsewhere in the book too. Rather than demonstrate Arik’s feelings towards others, the narrator often resorts to explaining, in detail, Arik’s thought process. As with exposition, a little of this is fine and probably even necessary. However, Containment spends more time in Arik’s head or in the exposi-space in between than it does in action sequences or intense exchanges of dialogue. The conflict between characters here is watered-down and B-movie in its delivery: the minor characters like Cadie and Cam are either wooden or one-note in their stock reactions to everything.
I loved the twist around which Containment pivots, and the mystery leading up to the reveal. It’s dramatic and believable, changing the direction of Cantrell’s plot and themes entirely will preserving a great deal of ground he has already laid. Arik’s solution is innovative and exciting, so there’s little reason for this book to be unsatisfying—except, alas, the writing. I just had a hard time enjoying the book, enjoying reading it. The ideas here are assembled nicely, but the work as a whole lacks the polish to make it truly shine. Containment is science fiction where that fusion between science and fiction hasn’t quite taken hold—plenty of both, but not quite in the right proportions.