Keeping It Real (Quantum Gravity, Book 1)

Reviewer: Jake Beal

Author: Justina Robson

Published: 2007

Reviewed: 2007-06-28

Publisher: Pyr

As I was checking out this book, another keyholder asked to see it,
read the back, and started laughing at me. I defended my choice,
having read the first few pages, and noted that one cannot tell a book
by its cover, and especially not by its back-blurb. Unfortunately, in
the case of "Keeping It Real," the other keyholder was right.

Not that it's a huge surprise, because Ms. Robson is taking on a very
tough task, that badly polluted subgenre of magical cyberpunk. I'd
blame the Shadowrun role-playing game, personally, except that I think
it's largely responsible for the existence of the subgenre. Like the
time-travelling engineer subgenre, magical cyberpunk draws both its
appeal and its peril from the juxtaposition of wildly different
elements and the friction between them. When an author succeeds, it's
a marvellously appealing game of What-If, and when they fail it's just
another broken corpse on one of several predictable failure modes.

To Ms. Robson's credit, she does not fail in any of the predictable
ways. In fact, I'm not sure you can call the book a failure at all,
it's just not the novel I'd hoped it would be, and managed to make me
distinctively uncomfortable on occasion. I really need to give
Ms. Robson applause for creating a credible world, and for not abusing
it as she goes (at least not yet---I find the "Book 1" subtitle
slightly ominous).

In the world of "Keeping It Real," a high-energy physics experiment
went wrong (they call it the "Quantum Bomb") and shattered reality
some time ago, separating the world into six realms, causing magic to
work, and maybe even rewriting all of history. Bingo, a plausible
excuse for introducing elves, demons, elementals, and fairies. To
Ms. Robson's immediate credit, the story directly involves only two
and a half of the six realms, and it's established well in advance
which the main ones will be. The others all work into bits of the
story, but unobtrusively, in the way that one is aware of Japan's
influence on our culture even if you aren't an anime freak or about to
go visiting. So first off, there's no "Gulliver's Travels" failure
mode, in which everything named must be used. Applause.

Nor is her prose a problem. Her writing has a steady workmanly
quality, and I was neither jarred by problems nor dazzled by feats of
Stephenson-esque wordsmanship. Mark me, this is not a criticism: all
I demand of an author in any dimension is that they not screw up
enough to jar me as I read. Ms. Robson's prose does an excellent job
of simply delivering an experience and getting out of the reader's

My problem, you see, is it's a romance novel. This is what the other
keyholder noticed, she being more adept at spotting the codewords in
the back cover blurb than I. And when I say it's a romance novel, I
mean that it's a romance novel first and foremost, and the narrative
drive of the romance novel warps the story around it. I am convinced
that this is the only reason why the main character is as much of a
ridiculous superwoman as she is, and why the plot skews out so badly.

Enough pussy-footing around. Let's just run it down by the numbers.
* Occurrences of deus ex machina: 2
* Percentage of opponents that become sympathetic allies: 75%
* Percentage of opponents sexually tied to the main character: 100%
* Percentage of opponents the main character actually has sex with: 75%
* Number of revelations about the nature of the universe: 4
* Percentage of revelations with sexual implications: 75%
* Number of sudden, disturbingly vivid sex scenes: 2
* Number of self-indulgent angstful monologues: too damn many to count

Like I said, it's a romance novel. I reviewed one before that turned
out OK, but I knew what I was getting into there. When two main
characters suddenly screw each other's brains out and toss it off
afterwards with "Oh, I guess we're stressed out because we're on a
suicide mission" it just did not sit well. It just felt too much like
a piece of slash fiction or something. So my final recommendation?
Read the book if you like, it's fairly good. Just be sure you realize
what you're getting into.