(Sorry for the delay.)
Cheryl Morgan and Justina Robson both seem to think that readers in the UK need to have the pun in the title of what Tricia Sullivan, probably rightly, regards as her best novel, explained to them, on the grounds that the pronunciation of “mall” that is the same as “maul” might be unfamiliar this side of the Atlantic. I don’t know about that. By 2003 most Britons, I would have thought, would be well-exposed to many items of American culture that took place at least partly in malls (the movie Clueless comes to mind). I would expect most people were perfectly familiar with that pronunciation, perhaps even more so than with the short-a version that is most commonly encountered in the road that leads to Buckingham Palace. The title certainly never threw me.
That absorption of American culture is perhaps key to the novel’s success in the UK, where it was nominated for both the BSFA and Clarke Awards. The present-day strand is set in a world that is only slightly distant from that experienced by the British reader, who could experience a similar environment (if perhaps less dangerous) not far from where they lived (Lakeside opened in 1988, Gateshead MetroCentre in 1986; Bristol’s Cribb’s Causeway even calls itself “The Mall”). And anyone who remembered the James Bulger killing would know that bad things could happen in places like this.
But the mall/maul strand is only one of the strands of this novel. It is paralleled by a far future strand, where men have been mostly wiped out by genetically-engineered plagues that attack the Y chromosomes, and leave men dead or desexualised. The science, as Sullivan herself says, is “pure fudge”, but it does its job, and creates a society almost entirely dominated by women. I want to discuss the gender issues in the second post – for now, I want to stick with the strands, and their relationship to one another. When I first read this novel, I was immediately reminded of M. John Harrison’s Light, which similarly blends present and future strands. But what is the nature of the relationship between the two strands in Maul?
It is rapidly apparent that there is one. In the future, Meniscus, a clone, is a living experiment, treated as not much better than a lab rat. He is, however, given a game, Mall, into which he can retreat to save what remains of his sanity (this was when virtual reality was still quite new – Second Life was launched in 2003, and only later became so passé that it could feature in both CSI and Law & Order). In the mall strand, the culture Meniscus has most recently been infected with, 10E, turns up as online video artist 10Esha (this latter characterisation is later echoed by FallN in Sullivan’s most recent novel, Lightborn). But does this mean that the mall has no reality? Robson certainly thinks so:
“this world, the book’s ‘reality’, is a virtual simulation being run inside a human being from some alternative reality.”
The novel itself might also suggest that. The first person narrator of the mall section, Sun Katz, tells us at one point “I have this weird conviction there will be no tomorrow”. Morgan and Adam Roberts are more circumspect. The both talk of the mall strand being a metaphorical representation of the Meniscus strand.
But the novel begins and ends with Sun, not with Meniscus. Early on, Sun christens a security guard Descartes, “for reasons that are nothing to do with anybody but me.” One can’t help feeling that Sullivan wants the reader to think of René Descartes’ most famous maxim: “I think, therefore I am.” Sun thinks, and we are privy to her thoughts. So she is real, at least to herself. As to whether the mall has any more objective reality, well, what does? In this, Sullivan’s novel resembles another crtically-acclaimed work of the previous year, Christopher Priest’s The Separation. Like Priest, Sullivan lays all the pieces out in front of us. But it’s up to the reader to work out what they mean.