Justina Robson has had one of the most interesting decades of any contemporary sf writer; by no means do I find all her novels successful, but they’re always fascinating to think about and rewarding to write about. My discussions of her story “Legolas Does the Dishes” and the most recent Quantum Gravity novel Chasing the Dragon have tried to set out some thoughts on how her body of work is developing, but the touchstone work for me remains Living Next-Door to the God of Love. A version of the following review first appeared in Foundation 96; thanks to Tony Keen for correcting my recollection of the end of Natural History.
Justina Robson’s fourth novel is about how we deal with possibility. At the end of Natural History (2003), humanity started to grasp the possibilities offered by Stuff – a disarmingly pragmatic name for a magical alien technology – with both hands. In Living Next-Door to the God of Love, Stuff is commonplace. With the aid of Unity, the intelligence guiding Stuff, humans have access to ‘sidebar universes’, worlds where they can do anything, be anyone. They can go to Metropolis, for example, and be a hero (or a villain); they can go to Sankhara, and live in a fantasy. The characters engage with this setting; they choose their stories. For one, it represents escape; for another, sanctuary; and for a third, it is home, something to be studied and understood. All of these assumptions are challenged in the course of this vibrant, intense novel.
The attention-grabbing first chapter opens in Metropolis. Our viewpoint, Jalaeka, is as much playing a role as anyone else in the city, but he seems to be less human than most. He’s an observer, and (for the moment at least) also a twelve-foot tall cupid with night-black skin and wings that beat on the fabric of reality. We stay with him until, at the end of the chapter, he flees the sidebar to escape Unity agents. It becomes clear that Unity is a collective consciousness, made up of the dreams and experiences of everyone it’s ever met. To become one with Unity – to ‘translate’ – is to disappear into a welcoming transcendence. Whether or not it represents oblivion isn’t clear, but most people, including Jalaeka, aren’t too keen on finding out. The point is underlined when, not too much later, it is offhandedly revealed that Metropolis has vanished, translated en masse. Back in the original reality, the human government isn’t best pleased about this development. Unity (or Unity’s representative, Theodore) insists that nobody has died, per se, but that’s not much consolation for a grieving family.
Meanwhile, Jalaeka has holed up in a sidebar to a sidebar, creating a replica Winter Palace in the back pocket of Sankhara (referred to as a ‘high interaction’ universe, which when it’s human intelligence doing the interacting is surely another way of saying the place is storyable). It’s in this world that we meet most of the rest of the cast and spend most of the rest of our time. Greg is a regular human, an academic researching Stuff and Unity. Rita is also human, but a partial avatar of Theodore. Hyperion and Skuld are Forged (biologically and cybernetically enhanced humans), but from very different backgrounds. And, of course, there is Francine, who with Jalaeka forms the novel’s center. Francine is a fifteen year-old runaway from reality: she has isolated herself from human interaction (symbolically and literally, by digging out the chip in the back of her hand that connects her to the local guide AIs), in an attempt to avoid the person she’s afraid she is, and become the person she wants to be. As for Jalaeka, our first instincts were right: he is not human. He is a side-effect of humanity’s contact with Stuff. We dropped into that everness like a stone tossed into the ocean, and the resultant splashes, drops and splinters scattered across reality. Separated from Unity, those splinters developed their own consciousness. Most were found and reabsorbed; Jalaeka is the last, and the shutdown of Metropolis demonstrates the lengths to which Unity is prepared to go to get him back.
You don’t have to get much further into Living Next-Door to the God of Love to realise that it isn’t going to be the novel you expect. Despite the high-stakes scenario, and the striking opening, its central story is relatively quiet. For most of its length, it is a study of the developing relationships between Francine, Jalaeka and Greg; each narrates sections of the story, their differing perspectives illuminating different facets of their situation. On one level it is a romance, and an uncommonly honest and thought-provoking one that looks at the costs, as well as the benefits, of relationships. But Robson never forgets the fantastic context within which her story is taking place, and uses it to explore and emphasise the reactions of the characters. An example: when avatars of Unity translate other characters, they are described as ‘eating’ them; and later, it turns out that they can call up instances of them, essentially recreating them from Stuff. Among other things this is a metaphor for how we carry others in our memories, and how coming to understand the experiences of others can affect and change us. Throughout, Theodore is always at least nominally trying to track down Jalaeka, but his schemes rarely feel urgent.
Robson is not always a writer of beautiful prose, and her landscapes, for all their variety, often seem rather dry; but she has a talent for characterisation, and is able to capture the uncertainty and rawness of strong emotion with some skill. In Living Next-Door to the God of Love, she has created a story and a setting that allow her to play to her strengths. We rarely get a true sense of the extravagant landscapes that Stuff allows. This is partly because those landscapes are frequently fluid—the Winter Palace changes and grows over the course of the novel; Sankhara is remade nightly, in a dreamtime shuffle that recalls Dark City—but it is also because Robson never quite seems comfortable with physical description. There is relatively little of it, considering how much the landscape changes, and when there is it often seems to strain to capture a sense of place. Of a cathedral that appears overnight, we are told: “It was gothic and black and almost entirely dwarfed by both the huge rocky bulk of SankhaGuide Massif and the twisting, half-alive towers of the Aelf, in whose shadow it stood at this time of the afternoon” (135). This is ungainly stuff, and lacking in specifics, and fails to take root in the imagination.
By contrast, Robson often excels at capturing the interior life of her characters. We viscerally understand how Francine and Jalaeka and Greg feel about where they are, even if we can’t quite picture it for ourselves. One of the most expansive moments in the novel is when Greg gains a glimpse of the cosmology of Sankhara, the centre of the galaxy of the planet of the city he calls home: “Disk stars and gas were so loud I couldn’t stand to look at them. Halo stars sang in almost single notes by comparison – a relief.” (200) Where a similar vista in, say, a Stephen Baxter novel would be a wonder unto itself, here it cannot be. Greg’s experience is central, and personalises our view; perhaps, Robson is saying, our experience is always central, because it’s the only thing tying us to the world. (The darkest moments in the book are equally personal, and more troubling because of it.) At the same time, Robson also has an ear for dialogue, and frequently uses discussion and debate (rather than flat explanation) to force the reader into a better understanding of her story, as when Greg and Jalaeka debate subjectivism (144–6). Her first-person voices are not as sharply differentiated as they might be, but the results can still be vivid, and in the context of the sketchy settings, disconcerting: flesh-and-blood characters walking through a wireframe world.
In one sense, given its distance from our contemporary lives, it is an abstract story, closer to pure thought-experiment than much sf gets. In another sense, given the questions being asked, it is about human nature at its most fundamental. Each of the characters is searching for self-understanding through love. Francine is just starting to understand who she might be; Greg has to ask who he is in the face of love’s loss. Even Unity is searching for answers: it wants to find the meaning of life, and create one if it turns out that currently there’s only an absence. Most intriguingly, Jalaeka is defined by love, to an extent that only becomes clear towards the end of the novel. Indeed, not just his identity, but his physical form is variable; although Jalaeka is male for most of the novel, he can just as easily be female. Jalaeka is not human, but he is a reflection of us. He is humanity trying to understand itself, and the novel is, in part, a window into his mind and into that process.
Living Next-Door to the God of Love is sf of the mind, not the world; that the scenery changes doesn’t matter nearly as much as the hopes and dreams that cause such shifts. Or to put it another way, it is a novel about character, if perhaps not classically a novel of character. Francine, Greg and Jalaeka are people who know their universe is made out of Stuff. They are conscious of their existence in a way that we generally aren’t; they can bitch about reality with a confidence that comes of knowing it is arbitrary. And yet, they are as cautious with each other as we are, because they remain human. The multiple first-person viewpoints allow Robson to demonstrate the shortcomings of the way we mentally model each other, all the time, but more than that the nature of Unity allows her to ask how existence and memory are linked. More than once in the novel, as the relationship between the two characters develops, Francine literally relives Jalaeka’s memories. The lines between them blur as their experiences converge (and don’t ask what you do when you’re confronted with the inevitable ex in that situation). What, the story asks, does a relationship ask of our individuality, our self-identity? What is the cost (given that Jalaeka is Unity writ small) of engagement with the universe?
It is, of course, an unanswerable question—where do we draw the line between our self and the world?—but Robson’s examination of it is thought-provoking and dramatic. It suggests that life is, finally, about negotiation—about finding the balance between your terms, and everyone else’s. A simple epiphany, perhaps, and for these characters strengthened by a metaphysical certainty that in the real world we lack, but no less intoxicating for that. Living Next-Door to the God of Love is a story of grand melancholy, pain, and – most wonderfully, despite everything – choosing to live. It is, as I said, about possibility; and, of course, about love.
Please email me with your top ten science fiction novels by women from the last ten years (2001-2010). All votes must be received by 23.59 on Sunday 5 December. Your own definition of science fiction applies.