Review of Debris by Jo Anderton
by Jo Anderton
What do you do when you undergo an accident that leaves you unable to interact with the basic technology underpinning your society? What do you do when that accident leaves you fit for one task few others would care to assume? What do you do when your new status leaves your old friends uncomfortable and your new ones unimpressed with you?
What do you do when it turns out your accident was no accident, and no one will listen?
In Debris, Tanyana is among the elite of Varsnia. In her society, technology harnessing elementary particles known as pions powers almost everything. Tanyana is a pion-binder, one of the best, an architect of buildings and statues for the highest bidder. But an accident during an unexpected inspection renders Tanyana unable to see pions any more. Instead, she can see debris, a byproduct of pion usage that interferes with pions (and not much else). Tanyana becomes pressed into being a debris collector: the gig comes with a silver suit bonded to her wrists that provides some limited shapeshifting capabilities. Despite their critical role in society, debris collectors receive little notice and little respect.
There are hints that not all is as it should be—or used to be—almost from the beginning. Tanyana and her team of debris collectors lurch from one disaster to the next. Eventually, Tanyana discovers that she is a pawn in a larger gambit involving forces far beyond her comprehension. Her accident was no accident, and since then she has not been as abandoned as she thought—instead, she has been shaped and manipulated by people close to her as well as those watching from a distance.
My problem is that I felt like I was watching from a distance, and that did not help at all. In some books, the hint of grand conspiracies and hidden histories is tantalizing and can help drive the plot as we cheer for the characters to solve the mystery. In this case, I just didn’t find myself invested in the characters or their problems.
Tanyana annoyed me at first, but then I realized it isn’t her fault. She’s actually a nice person, and proactive in her own way—what was annoying me was every person blaming Tanyana for everything that went wrong. She was like a personal magnet for the blame of Murphy’s Law. Moreover, no one seemed to want to explain anything to Tanyana (and then they blamed her when she was ignorant of a procedure). These behaviours made every character seem like an ass, and I disliked all of them. (Except maybe Lad. Lad’s cool.)
I also struggled with not knowing enough about the world Anderton has obviously gone to pains to construct. Pions are an actual thing. Are the magical pions of Debris supposed to be related? It’s not clear. Anderton seems to indicate that everyone can see pions but not many are skilled at manipulating them as Tanyana used to be. What does everyone else spend their time doing? If pions have replaced the role of old school machines, what happened to all the scientists and engineers? I don’t doubt that Anderton could provide a satisfactory explanation, because revolutions like the one she describes have certainly happened in our past. But for all the interesting ideas she throws in here, there are still aspects of her society that remain vague.
It’s not all bad news. Anderton genuinely has something interesting here. I’d like to learn more about debris collecting, and I definitely want to know why the bad guys are so bent on doing something that seems to threaten existence as we know it—are they just evil, or are they misguided? Part of this curiosity is the result, of course, of that vagueness I mentioned above—but part of it is because Anderton whets my appetite with the right amount of conflict and questions.
Additionally, I loved watching Tanyana adapt to her new circumstances after her accident. Her world changes so completely. At first she lives in denial, thinking she might get to maintain her accustomed lifestyle. Gradually she realizes how wrong she is. She must make new friendships—many of her old “friends” desert her following her loss of status—and determine how to cope with her inability to use pions—which, in this society, is definitely a disability.
Debris is a kind of bland novel. It has some of the basic book nutrients: a passable plot, serviceable characters. It lacks the zest and spice that make a book memorable. I want more, but I don’t know how much more—and certainly not with any urgency.