Vector #269

This issue of Vector is dedicated, in part, to revisiting the subject of women writers of science fiction. Few female UK-based science fiction authors currently have contracts, but worldwide, there’s a great deal going on, a geographic, cultural, and linguistic diversity which Cheryl Morgan surveys in this issue. I came away from reading it with a massively expanded to-read list, and I hope it inspires you similarly. Tony Keen examines the roles of death and transformation in Justina Robson’s books Natural History (one of the books on last year’s list of the previous decades best science fiction by women) and Living Next Door to the God of Love. In contrast, Niall Harrison examines a very different author, Glasgow-based Julie Bertagna. Her post-apocalyptic trilogy, which begins with Exodus, provides an intriguing comparison with Stephen Baxter’s current series of prehistoric climate change novels which began with Stone Spring.

The second part of Victor Grech’s three-part series on gender in science fiction doesn’t focus on women science fiction authors, but does deal with quite a few of them in the process of discussing the variety of single-gendered world in science fiction. In particular, he examines the in-story reasons, the biological explanations for their existence, and the degrees to which those mechanisms are found in the ecologies of our own world.

Shana Worthen

Natural History – Conceptual Resolution

Take a new kind of humanity, the Forged, created as part machine, part animal, part human, living uneasily with Unevolved humans.

Take the Stuff, a mysterious substance capable of becoming an instantaneous interstellar drive and a strangely-uninhabited alien planet.


Natural History is, at its heart, an experiment, working out the ramifications of an alien intervention into humanity’s future developments. It features a wonderfully-wrought cast of characters in a plausibly sketched future, a couple hundred years ago. I didn’t get a strong sense of the fabric of daily life in that future so much as the power struggles over creation – quite literally encoded into the name of guy in de facto charge of shaping Earth, Machen, and the progenitor Pangensis Tupac. Robson shows us the lines of power and the lines of information, in names as well as actions.

Moments of importance are often underlined in overwrought moments of reaction:

Corvax leaped back from the consoles, straight through his virtual arrays, and landed against the wall, smacking his back so hard with the force of his own involuntary retreat that he snapped several feathers and a minor wing bone. (33)

Overreaction such as this, rather than just reaction, was little a little too frequent for my taste, especially given the general lack of emotional reaction to the immense potential of the universe theoretically opening up for humankind. That’s also why I could never quite relate to Isol, whose journey the book is structured around more than most. But those are minor objections.

What really undermined the ultimate shape of the plot arc for me was that there was no way to show the resolution; instead, it required a chapter of info-dumping. Hard-won, it is true, but nevertheless a weary unwinding in words rather than the visualized playing-out of the fate of those with Stuff. The plot-shape is discovery, a burst of experimental effort, and a steady dying away into a much more limited vision of the likely future.

And yet – this is an impressive book, more so on re-reading than reading for me. The world building was too rich for me to process the first time around. The Forged characters and the solar system which created them are the vividly-realized background of this book. Against them, an elegantly-conceptualized philosophy experiment, in effect, can be carried out; but I deeply admired the world more than I enjoyed the story qua story.

Enjoyment isn’t everything though. Since finishing Natural History, I keep finding ways to relate it to other books. To tell you what they are would be to more clearly spell out exactly how the book ends; suffice to say, Natural History does a more compelling job of realizing the possible consequences of that kind of communication system than most which are even vaguely similar.

Natural History – Space and Stuff

If I could instantly teleport through space, secure in the knowledge that I could safely arrive at my destination without worrying about co-occupying space with something else, and certain of being able to breath and not fall, I don’t think I would be content to do it only twice, not if the method I was using allowed for more than that. I would want to know the capabilities of the method I had found, and what wonders the universe holds.

In the first chapter of Natural History, Voyager Lonestar Isol, hurtling through space, damaged and dying, encounters what she nicknames the “Stuff”. It’s a multi-dimensional technology so advanced that it might as well be magic so far as these twenty-third century humans and Forged are concerned. In Isol’s unwitting, stubby hands, the Stuff mutates into a drive allowing for transportation at the speed of thought. And yet she only goes two places: an unknown planet, and back home to Earth.

Isol has a suspicion about the Stuff which the other characters don’t share. She knows she, personally, should not overuse it – but no one else realizes that for the majority of the book. Yet those other characters don’t seem bothered by this lack of use. They’re interested in the political ramifications of that single other planet existing. They’re interested in how the Stuff works, the seven-dimensional mathematics which may lie behind its improbable operations. They never spend that moment in wonder over the possibility that the whole universe has opened up to human exploration.

There are astonishing things and awe-inspiring vision in Natural History, but early on, the lack of wonder expressed by the characters themselves – up until one arrives on that alien planet – baffled me.

‘So, you believe this claim that Isol’s found an extra-solar planetary system?’

The Strategos glanced at the shadows of the two Orniths shifting on the blind, looking like a single monster with two heads. ‘What interests me is this machinery it mentions.’ (62)

Those are the two things which interest all the characters: a single extra-solar planetary system, and the machinery, the Stuff, which Isol has brought back from her interstellar journeying.

How can they be so blasé about the possibilities of instantaneous travel, especially when so many of the Forged to which we are introduced over the course of the story are transit ships? Even when a Forged transit ship take the Stuff on board in the form of a drive, he fails to make much use of it, even though he does not appear to share Isol’s reservations. The universe his apparent oyster, and he coasts about the Solar System.

Natural History is a book which made me feel wonder about the extraordinary things it contains; but it struck me as dissonant that its own characters so rarely succumbed to any sense of wonder about their own world.

(To be continued)

Natural History – Cladistics

I cannot tell you exactly what my first impressions of Justina Robson’s Natural History were. I read the book a couple of years ago and failed to take notes.

I remembered it as densely-confusing in its early chapters, the world-building too rich to take in at the pace at which it was presented. (It works better the second time around.) Still, moments stuck in my mental vision of the book: Isol hurtling through space; the airplane taking off at long last; the dog under the desk. It’s strange how memory works. Two of those three images are not really all that significant in terms of the plot, but rather, are concluding images of particular threads. Isol, on the other hand, is how it all begins.

Isol is one of the Forged, created by future humanity, partially machine, partially derived from animal DNA, partially human. Isol’s body was made to stand the rigors of long-distance travel through the galaxy; her personality was chosen for its robustness in the face of years of isolation. Other Forged are part jellyfish or manta-ray-like airplanes. They are odd, they are Other, but their core of personality is human.

Robson is inspired in the ways she demonstrates how different they are. Early on, there’s a scene in which a not-much-bigger-than-human Forged is visited by a mile-long spaceship transport Forged. In another scene, an observer realizes that, although the Forged of Jupiter and Saturn are physically similar, one is miniscule, the other gigantic.

The Forged are primarily designed to live where humans cannot. They were made for deep space, deep seas, and the skies. As a result, many humans spend much of their lives without running into many Forged, especially the rarer ones. How rare do they get? The story includes at least two very rare varieties, one of whom may be the only one of his type. There are only three of the other. Fortunately for their perpetuity, they do not reproduce, but are made by an absolutely-enormous Mother-Father Factory-like parent in low Earth orbit, the Pangenesis Tupac. (The original one, long-since decomissioned, was named Eve.)

How Other are they? That debate is one of motivations which drives the plot; the Forged do not agree among themselves if they are enough like Unevolved humans to keep to the Solar System, or if they should look elsewhere for their future.

Humans are not sure either. Archeologist Zephyr Duquesne tells a student to read up more on ancient Rome, and compare its use of human slaves to the way modern humans make used of the Forged, pointing out that

“the slaves of the modern age, according to many of their political extremists, are the Forged. You might compare the situation in Rome to this and decide if you think their point is valid. What’s the point of history if it has nothing to say to the present?” (69).

Where their personalities are human, their naming echoes that of species. Isol is, in full, Voyager Lonestar Isol. Zephyr’s first Forged transportation is courtesy of IronHorse AnimaMekTek Aurora. It is very much an intentional echoing of the way taxonomy is used with more traditional species. There are a variety of kinds of IronHorses, but they are all of the same clade, all variants of some earlier Forged model.

The Natural History of this future plays out through the intersections of engineering, willpower, geography, and cladistics.

(To be continued)

Playlists, Soundtracks, and Science Fiction

The first chapter of Justina Robson’s Natural History is structured around the Don McLean song, “American Pie”. The lyrics help to structure fraught events, both in our world and in that of the dying Isol. The book (about which more discussion  next week) begins, in effect, with music, with a theme song. It’s not a whole soundtrack for the book, but it’s why I noticed a coincidence or a trend – I don’t have enough data to know which.

Our first book of this year’s TC reading project didn’t have one theme song. It had an entire discography, listed out on the final pages of the paperback and a page of the accompanying website. Gwyneth Jones’ Bold as Love is about a rock band, so it’s not surprising that it might come with music. Plenty of books about bands don’t, however. This one recommends hours of previously-existing albums, plumbed for their vibe, their synergies, their influence on the book’s musical interactions. Its concerts are major plot points.

The second book didn’t have a discography listed out as an appendix, but it didn’t need one. Elizabeth Moon’s Speed of Dark is suffused with soundtrack, carefully orchestrated by its main character to match the needs of his life. Lou uses symphonic music to overlay sequences in his life with imposed structure, a device which makes it easier for him to cope with various scenarios, from the gym to the drive home. It need not even be recorded: he has a wealth of classical music stored in his memory for summoning up when he needs it as counterbalance. A mention – name, composer – may be enough to summon up the tunes for some readers as well. In only one instance does Lou recommend to us specific versions of the music he thinks through: in all other cases, we can pick our own symphonies, our own soloists.

I’ve read a couple of other books in the past year or so which came with the songs or albums listed to which the author wrote the book. Carrie Vaughn’s Kitty books do. Linnea Sinclair’s last novel, Rebels and Lovers, does. Lauren Beukes’ Moxyland has an entire purchasable album which was compiled around it. So does her currently Clarke Award-nominated Zoo City.

The only book soundtracks I’m particularly aware of from previous decades are filk. Mercedes Lackey has written and produced a slew of albums to accompany her Valedemar novels. Anne McCaffrey approved an official album in part comprising tunes to lyrics she’d provided in her Pern novels. Suzette Haden Elgin’s Native Tongue came with poignant alternative spacefaring lyrics to known tunes, used as chapter intros.

The CD singles charts may be in commercial freefall, as far as any given song’s success is concerned, but I am certain that, more broadly, the singles market has never been more healthy. Download a song as ringtone. Download a single at a click. In the ‘80s it became feasible to make mix tapes, with the advent of the cassette tape. Now, a book’s soundtrack need not even be prepackaged if the tunes are mainstream enough: they can be individually downloaded and reassembled into the unified album that a playlist had the potential to be on one’s own music playing device.

As evidence goes, this is scanty. These are the works of science fiction and fantasy I can name off of the top of my head which come with soundtracks.

So – the three books so far for the best science fiction novels written by women in the last decade. Will more of this year’s TC reading project feature theme songs or downloadable soundtracks?

Are female authors more likely to include that bit of extra real-world tie-in world-building than male ones are, or is this an accident of what I’ve been reading that I’ve only noticed soundtracks in books which happen to be written by women?

Regardless of gender, is this a trend or a coincidental cluster?

April: Natural History

And so it’s 2003.

2003 yielded a bumper crop of admirable science fiction novels written by women, with three books. 2004 was the only other year with more than one on the final list of 11.

I wonder to what degree this might be a reflection on human memory. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not arguing with the merit of the works on the list so much as musing on being human. Five of the books were published in 2003 or 2004.  Is six or seven years the necessary length to digest, judge, and yet still remember reading a given book?

Back in January, I scrounged around with the months of 2003. Which book had been published first? I ignored place of location and went for global first publication. Plenty of people were importing buzzy books in both directions. My notes tell me that Natural History came out in April of 2003.


I’d like to invite you to join us in reading Justina Robson’s Natural History this month, part of a year-long chronological reading of the novels nominated as the best science fiction novels written by women in the last ten years.

The book was well-received, collecting a group of notable award nominations, if no wins. It was shortlisted for the BSFA for the best book published in 2003; nominated for the Campbell award in 2004; and for the Philip K Dick Award in 2005. It was Robson’s third novel.

Apropos of Chris Priest’s Clarke Award-winning novel that year being dedicated to Paul Kincaid, the award’s administrator, David Langford commented, “Justina Robson, already twice nominated for the Clarke Award, thoughtfully provides future gossip-bait for The Spectator in her third novel Natural History – featuring a vast, lumbering, obsolete and not very bright terraforming engine, called Kincaid.”

Coincidentally, this month is a good one for focusing on a work by Justin Robson. She’s going to be one of the Guests of Honour at Swancon, in Australia, over Easter weekend.


On 23 January 2003, NASA lost contact (as expected) with Pioneer 10, the first space probe to go beyond the asteroid belt. In February, the shuttle Columbia burned up during atmospheric re-entry. The first Chinese manned space mission was completed, and Mars was as close to Earth as it will be for another 50,000 years. Wars in Darfur and Iraq were just beginning. The Human Genome Project completed sequencing human DNA, and Dolly-the-Cloned-Sheep passed away. There was the SARS scare,  Arnold Schwarzenegger was elected governor of California, the Concorde made its last commercial flight, and in the UK, mobile phones had become common enough that their handheld use while driving was specifically outlawed.

I will be leading the discussion later this month. I hope you will join me in reading and discussing it.

Top Ten Writers

As was noted back at the start of the week, and by a good number of people casting their votes in the poll, the popularity of series in the sf field can make it hard to single out individual books. Moreover, many writers are prolific — if someone’s written one outstanding novel in a decade, they may have an advantage, in this sort of poll, over someone who’s written three. So here’s another way of looking at the data, counting up the top ten writers who were nominated for multiple books, ordered by total nominations received.

1. Gwyneth Jones

Not a surprise, given her three appearances this week. But two other books were also nominated: Castles Made of Sand, the follow-up to Bold as Love, and Siberia, one of Jones’ YA novels (published as by Ann Halam).

2. Justina Robson

Natural History did well, of course, but plenty of people also nominated Living Next-Door to the God of Love, Mappa Mundi and Keeping it Real.

3. Tricia Sullivan

As noted in this morning’s post, in addition to Maul, nominations were sent in for every other novel she’s published this decade — Double Vision, Sound Mind, and Lightborn.

4. Elizabeth Bear

The first writer to appear on this list who hasn’t appeared in the main top ten, Bear received nominations for Hammered (often as a proxy for the whole Jenny Casey trilogy), standalones Carnival and Undertow, for Dust, and for By the Mountain Bound.

5. Elizabeth Moon

In addition to Speed of Dark, Moon picked up nominations for Trading in Danger and Moving Target.

6. Jo Walton

Farthing‘s placement low in the top ten certainly doesn’t reflect the strength of support Walton received, with many nominations for the second Small Change novel, Ha’Penny, and for Lifelode.

7. Liz Williams

Like Bear, Williams hasn’t made it into the main top ten; but she achieves the distinction of having more novels nominated than any other writer, six in total:Ghost Sister, The Poison Master, Empire of Bones, Nine Layers of Sky, Banner of Souls, and Darkland.

8. Karen Traviss

In addition to the nominations for City of Pearl, Traviss picked up a few nods for her tie-in work — Gears of War novel Aspho Fields, and Star Wars novels Hard Contact, 501st, and Order 66.

9. Ursula K Le Guin

Lavinia accounted for the bulk of Le Guin’s nominations, but a few enthused about the Western Shore novels, in particular Gifts and Voices.

10. Connie Willis

And finally, Willis picked up nominations for both Blackout/All Clear, and for Passage — both not that far off the top ten.

Ranking calculated from 101 responses to a poll run during October, November and December 2010.

Future Classics: #3

Natural History by Justina Robson (2003)

Natural History cover

Into the top three with Justina Robson’s third novel, a venture into space opera, and very well received. Jakob Schmidt:

Despite Natural History being about human evolution and transcendental insights, Robson refuses to employ the apolitical sense of the sublime that characterizes many SF novels with similar topics. This novel is no glorified evolutionary fable. Even when it addresses the idea of reaching a whole new level of existence, it remains embedded in the social and political landscape of human affairs. Or, to put it in the thoughts of the character Zephyr Duquesne: “Without a religious foundation, she wasn’t bothered by any questions of an insult to God or the hubris of Prometheus that might have arisen. But she was bothered by the strong feelings of many of the Forged that attached to, in her view, legitimate complaints about their situation.” This statement, which is more radical than it might seem at first glance, permeates the whole novel and makes it a true challenge to the conventions of “evolutionary” Science Fiction.

Other reviews: M John Harrison in The Guardian, Tony Keen at Strange Horizons, Martin Lewis at SF Site.

Ranking calculated from 101 responses to a poll run during October, November and December 2010.


Speaking of Justina Robson, as we were, a link to this press release just dropped into my inbox:

Heliotrope coverTiconderoga Publications is excited to announce a forthcoming collection of stories by the Arthur C Clarke Award finalist and bestselling UK writer Justina Robson.

The collection is titled Heliotrope and scheduled for publication in 2011.

Justina Robson has published eight novels, including four books in the Quantum Gravity series. The fifth book, Down to the Bone, will be published in early 2011. She has been nominated for the Arthur C Clarke Award twice, the Philip K Dick Award three times, the British SF Association Award twice and the John W Campbell Award.

Heliotrope is her first story collection.

Robson’s writing has been noted for sharply-drawn characters, and an intelligent and deeply thought-out approach to the tropes of the genre. M John Harrison has described her as “one of the very best of the new British hard SF writers”.

While Robson is noted as a novelist, she is also a Clarion West Workshop graduate and has been publishing short stories since 1994.

Justina Robson writes stories that are both emotionally moving and full of ideas,” Ticonderoga Editor Russell B Farr said.

“Her stories have the rare quality of simultaneously appealing to the head and to the heart,” he said.

Heliotrope collects sixteen stories, including the first print publication of “Dream of Mars”, and the never before published title novella “Heliotrope”.

“The collection has something for everyone, there is real variety in this book,” Russell added.

Heliotrope was sold via John Berlyne of the Zeno Agency.

Heliotrope will be published in April 2011 to coincide with Justina Robson’s Guest of Honour appearance at Australia’s 50th National Science Fiction Convention, to be held in Perth. The collection will be available in limited edition hardcover and trade editions.

I’ve been hoping someone would do this book for a few years now, so this goes straight on my to-buy list.

Living Next-Door to the God of Love by Justina Robson (2005)

Living Next-Door to the God of Love cover
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.