Author and physicist Catherine Asaro has proven that she has more than one universe up her sleeve. The Veiled Web, her fifth published novel, may still be aimed squarely at the intersection of romance and science fiction that garnered her a Sapphire award for Catch the Lightning, but it departs altogether from the star-spanning Skolian Empire of her previously published books, to provide instead an entirely earthbound but still engaging tale of romance, nascent artificial intelligence, and international intrigue in the near-future.
Although The Veiled Web remains on planet Earth, its setting is by no means mundane. Much of the action takes place in a Muslim household in Morocco, a culture almost as alien to me (and, I suspect, to most of her readers) as the Skolians. The novel also draws artfully on her own experiences, both as a teacher of ballet and as the CEO of her own company, Molecudyne Research, to add realism.
Asaro's treatment of Moroccan culture and of Islam seems to me to be informed, sympathetic and nuanced. This is already something rare in English-language science fiction, made all the more so by the fact that (as she related in an interview in Locus magazine) she has never actually been to Morocco. She manages such verisimilitude with the help of the Internet, in a way which wouldn't have been possible even a few short years ago: through extensive email correspondence with people in Morocco, a correspondence which would have been prohibitively expensive by phone, or prohibitively slow via post.
The Veiled Web borrows conventions from both romance and science fiction. Asaro's talent for combining what may be familiar tropes in new combinations is in evidence here as in her previous novels. Don't stop me if you've heard this one before... a beautiful and brilliant woman who is nevertheless reclusive and insecure is virtually abducted by a dark, mysterious, very rich stranger for whom she feels an instant, apparently unshakable attraction. But the woman's no debutante, and the mysterious stranger is no mere dilettante. She's a down-to-earth ballerina, contradictory as that sounds. He's doing groundbreaking research in the field of artificial intelligence, and may have created the first computer program with a soul.
Asaro's success here is combining these strands to make something neither genre has often experienced, with enough romance to satisfy that genre's fans and enough AI to entertain at least this one sf fan.
I didn't think the book was wholly unflawed. The very juxtaposition of sf and romance may be enough to disappoint readers with strict ideas about where their genres end, and the transitions from one mode to the other do sometimes seem a bit forced - the prose tends to be either scientific exposition or romantic intrigue, but rarely blends the two. Also, perhaps as an attempt to engage more mainstream readers, Asaro seems to want to explain too much that may already be familiar to her original audiences; she defines Ramadan very carefully, for example, and spells out aspects of Internet access that I think most of her sf fans will already know.
Nevertheless, I think The Veiled Web is a successful change of pace for Asaro, and one most likely to broaden, not diminish, her already large fan base.
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Catherine Asaro, The Veiled Web. Tor paperback, ISBN 0-553-58151-1, US$5.99. More information about Catherine Asaro's books is available at http://www.sff.net/people/asaro/.
My reviews of Asaro's books:
©1999 Alan P. Scott. All rights reserved.
This document was last updated December 31, 1999.