Elizabeth Hand, Icarus Descending (Bantam Books, 1993)

Icarus Descending brings to a close Elizabeth Hand's trilogy sketching the decline and fall of the Ascendant Autocracy and with it, that of humanity.

Margalis Tast'annin, one of five to escape the doomed city of Araboth, has set his mind on the recovery of Metatron, the near-mythical military android that he sees as the key to saving whatever can be saved from the collapse of what's left of civilization. The geneslaves, aided by some humans, have embarked on a series of terrorist actions and open revolts, with guidance and direction from an unknown source. Vancouver has fallen, and New Witchita, and the HORUS colonies that circle the earth are now in the hands of the energumens -- grossly modified clones of the daughter of the great geneticist Luther Burdock. Tast'annin plans to reconstitute the Autocracy under his control, using Metatron as his means and the android Nefertity to control Metatron. Conditioned since childhood to serve, Tast'annin has somehow thrown off that conditioning and is ready to rule.

Tast'annin has decided that he needs the empath Wendy Wanders to complete his mission. Wendy, however, has escaped from the old capital, the City of Trees, in the wake of its capture and destruction by Autocracy troops under Tast'annin. It was she and her friend Jane who killed the Aviator general. Wendy, another subject of the Autocrats' experiements, is able to induce suicide in her targets -- or was: she has lost her powers. Wendy and her companions fall in with the rebels, quite by chance, and are taken along to Cassandra, an enclave in the mountains where the inhabitants eagerly await the Coming of Icarus.

Formally, Hand has created a four-part narrative that gradually draws together as we approach the climax. In some ways it's a collage, segments told from the viewpoints of Tast'annin, the energumen Kalamat on the HORUS colony Quirinus, her brother Kalaman on Helena Aulis, and Wendy Wanders on the road to Cassandra. The images start to collide and interpenetrate until the final chapter, where Kalamat and Wendy share the narration.

Hand has said that by the time she was working on Icarus Descending she had lost interest in the trilogy, and it's to her credit that the narrative is as strong and engaging as it is. Granted, there are a number of places where there are, so to speak, more words than story, but as the book progresses those seem to become fewer and fewer. Hand does have a tendency toward detailed descriptions, but that is not always the best way to set the scene or create a mood, and in fact it can stop a narrative cold. She avoids that here, but here are places where it's touch and go.

I'm not convinced that the story is ever resolved. The conclusion could as easily be a bridge as a finish, and while Metatron triumphant is not the finale I would wish for, it's one that could easily be supported by the logic of the narrative if there were an event one could point to and say "The End." There isn't, really. The final scene opens up as many possibilities as it resolves.

The world of the Ascendant Autocracy is a pretty depressing one, the product of that fine old tradition in science fiction, extrapolation, grounded in an aesthetic that seems based in steampunk, subterranean baroque, and horror. Hand has taken the combination of genetic research, increasing expertise in complex and difficult surgeries, religious fanaticism, and the increasing stratification of American society and created a mix that would give any sane person nightmares. She did a pretty good job of it -- there's a certain amount of discomfort in reading these books for anyone, I think, half aware of what's going on in the world today.

[Robert M. Tilendis]