Blood State, Raluca Balasa’s debut science fiction novel, is a sweeping four-part epic set on far away planet Tåhlti, in the distant future. This world houses two groups of Earth folk—Firsts (also Cellis, or Icebloods), settlers who’ve mutated to survive the planet’s frigid climate by turning their blood into a type of antifreeze; and Modernists (also Ironbloods), more recent arrivals with a feudal society and an every-man-for-himself survival drive.
All the planet’s inhabitants, including the elusive dragonfish, face an oncoming ice age travelling at warp speed. Clashes between and among the Firsts and Modernists drive the plot, which is richly seeded with political maneuverings, science experiments, terrorism, anthropolgical tidbits, and Tåhlti environmental science.
Five Modernist Houses, collectively referred to as the Braith, vie for ultimate control of the planet. Despite the balance of male to female leaders at 3:2, patriarchal values, particularly conquest, predominate. Braith leaders—Lucian (House Deveraux), Idris (House Kartal), Roderick (House Acker), Irina (House Shvakova), and Min-Ji (House Song)—tend toward stereotypes, more so for the secondary and tertiary characters. Acker and Song, in particular, fall into the categories of self-involved white dufus, and introspective Asian lady, respectively, while Shvakova is a ball-busting blonde of Eastern European descent. Lucian Devereaux begins as a cold-blooded general, but we do see deeper dimensions of his character since we’re in his point of view for much of the time. His love-hate relationship to his politically-selected wife introduces sexual tension, and some levity. Raluca Balasa is masterful with these interpersonal relationships, and Kiraz Kartal’s journey toward comprehending her husband’s multiple masks is highly entertaining:
She pulled a hand through her braid, yanking out strands. Her shift was stained with wine. She was a mess. After calling her brother, she’d downed another glass of wine to numb herself further. It wasn’t every day she ordered her husband’s murder.
Climate catastrophe, imperialism, terrorism, and sexual power struggles are timely themes. The author has given her readers a well-constructed world in which to dwell while considering a multitude of distinct points of view. Although there are four main voices, we get scenes in at least two others. Where the author really shines is in her development of individual characters, who are molded according to their personal inclinations, and their rank (especially for a Modernist). The following occurs early in the story. It shows suspicious and impulsive Dominic, an outcast Modernist, acclimating to his new home:
This part of town had given him the creeps before he’d been exiled here. Now the exposed pipes around buildings no longer looked like snakes squeezing prey, and the cliffs circling the glaciated valley didn’t remind him of teeth or blades, but of natural protection from the wind. Not a bad place for a ghetto, really, so long as there weren’t many flash floods.
On such an extreme world, indoor settings take on personalities of their own:
Finally, they reached ground. The smells of iodine and hydrogen peroxide struck him as soon as the walls opened into a corridor. Lights flicked on: balls of white energy that hissed and snapped as they roiled overhead. Powered by the ocean surrounding the Cliffhanger, they reflected its current mood.
Most of the science in Blood State isn’t hard, despite the fact that its people traveled as far in time and space as we can imagine. It’s mainly the science of people, culture, society. The family and political struggles are familiar, bordering on banal in some cases, but still, engaging overall. I would have liked to see a more distinct Celli culture and a deeper treatment of their history, especially when the Modernists first dropped on Tåhlti. We learn that Firsts don’t trust Modernists, but we don’t get a lot of introspection or reflection from them. Modernists, perhaps true to their status as conquerors, get more air time, with respect to their individual desires and interpersonal relationships. This could simply reflect the fact that the Celli people are too preoccupied with fattening up for hibernation to follow their baser instincts, while the Modernists are in desperate competition for limited resources to ensure their own survival.
In Blood State, there are echoes of Frank Herbert’s Dune (mysterious inhabitants of a harsh planet that yields, and hides, the secret to sustaining life there), George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones (the coming of long winter, feuds, dragonfish, platinum blonde villainess/warrior), and Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (human meets humanoid on distant planet, the potential and politics of human bodies). But though Raluca Balasa makes use of familiar notes, her composition is original, and very entertaining. Blood State is a bold debut, one that, hopefully, heralds fantastic future reads from this talented author.
Blood State is available from Renaissance Press (Gatineau, Quebec).