Oh, this is a cold book. Its main characters, our four guides who contract the passport to the fantastical city of Palimpsest, are broken individuals all; there is almost no warmth in the very frequent sex they all engage in; and the closer they get to achieving their dream of permanently moving to Palimpsest, the clearer it becomes that for all its wonders, it is like everywhere else a place to live, not an answer. Reviews — Matt Denault, Dan Hartland, Deborah J Brannon, Annalee Newitz — rightly talk about how penetrating the novel is on the relationship between the real and the fantastic. I’m a little surprised that words like possessiveness and selfishness don’t crop up more often; they seem to me necessary to capture the full desolation of the desire that the Palimpsest virus induces, an addictive need to make a place ours, to make it us, to fill ourselves up with it: an need familiar to readers of fantasy that the novel at first mocks, with its absurdly imaginative glimpses of a city that refuse to become a whole, and then, towards the close, seems to concede. The great weakness of Palimpsest, as Dan is most forceful in articulating, is that to this end its characters are tools, not players, and they can feel a little thin, not to mention hapless (perhaps particularly the two men; the two women felt more sharply defined to me throughout). All four are victims of the story, not shapers of it — a feeling reinforced by the highly structured, highly stylised nature of the book, which clinically cycles between the characters, forcing more direction onto them than their individual lives ever seem to contain. But perhaps this is a final chill irony: an unresolvable struggle between the irresistable artifices of stories and something more fluid, less satisfying, that we have to try to recognise as life.
If there is any disappointment associated with this book, it’s that I read it too late in the year to buy it for anyone for Christmas. Oyeyemi’s third novel is, like The Opposite House, a fierce, fluid and economical tale, more explicit about its fantastic content but still laced with sufficient uncertainties that after one quick read I don’t feel able to speak authoritatively about “what happened”. I tend more to Jane Shilling‘s view of the book than Carrie O’Grady‘s, however. So, to describe its three narrators: Eliot, whose twin Miranda is at the heart of the book, and who appears to be sincerely conscientious about her worsening health; Ore, who falls into a relationship with Miranda when the two of them meet in their first year at Cambridge, and comes to visit her at home during the Christmas vacation; and 29 Barton Road, the house where Eliot and Miranda and their father Luc live in Dover, whose voice is (mostly) the voice of Miranda’s mother, and grandmother, and great-grandmother (as Dan Hartland notes, the voice of history), speaking in chorus, fearful of and prejudiced towards anyone not of the family, anyone different. Their hold over Miranda only grows. A darkly self-aware ghost story, then, with an uncommon freshness that springs from its acuity of insight into character and circumstance; a book in which the scariest thing is what the fear of other people can become, and do.
As I have noted before, it’s not that I deliberately disparage horror fiction. It’s just that in general, what disturbs me is not, it seems, what disturbs writers of horror, or what such writers think should disturb me. I think this is partly a matter of familiarity, and partly a matter of presentation. Editorial hyperbole, certainly, is never more distracting than when it’s telling you how you’re going to feel. So it’s a shock in itself when the introduction to a story such as Monica J O’Rourke’s “Cell” — “as fiercely uncompromising as anything we’ve published” — really does turn out to denote a story of comparable quality to the work of other newish horror writers such as Joe Hill and M. Rickert. In outline, “Cell” is formulaic: a second-person narrative in which “you” find yourself imprisoned in an unidentified prison, with your fellow inmates being carted off by black-robed folks one by one, or else banging their heads against the wall as a way of committing suicide. Two things make it work: that the narrative doesn’t flinch; and that it is self-interrogative. By the first I don’t mean that it’s graphic, but that it remains tense throughout, and stays true to the totalising, intimidating nature of its premise. (“You” pass in and out of sleep several times; on one such occasion, O’Rourke writes that sleep “has been searching the darkness for you” . Were I to indulge in my own hyperbole, I’d suggest that the same could be said of this story.) And by self-interrogative, I mean that “Cell” foregrounds the nature of both second-person narration and horror fiction. The disjunct between the “you” of the story — a married caucasian Christian man with two children — and the “you” reading is never downplayed; indeed the central questions of the story involve guilt and empathy, how the former, including in the form of watching others suffer, engenders the latter, and what that implies for the sincerity of either emotion.
But self-awareness, sadly, is not always self-interrogation; if it were, then This is the Summer of Love, the first anthology edition of PS’s Postscripts magazine, which at least so far as I’m concerned has more than its share of mildly metafictional horror tales, would be much more to my taste than it is. (The anthology becomes the latest victim of my ongoing skirmishes with genre horror quite inadvertently: I read it because it’s advertised as simply a “new writers” special — albeit with a flexible definition of “new” that translates to “people who may have published quite a few stories that we think you won’t have heard of”.) Into the category of “middling success”, for instance, falls RB Russell’s “Literary Remains”. The setup involves an older woman recalling an episode from her youth: she was in her early twenties, living on her own for the first time, in a band, and working in a second-hand bookshop to make ends meet. One of the shop’s customers, an elderly man, develops a creepy but seemingly harmless mild obsession with the narrator, leading him to donate various books of ghost stories — some rare editions, some pulp, all heavily annotated. The narrator finds her interest sparked by the annotations, and from there she develops an appreciation of the man’s own, little-known, fiction. Then the man dies, and becomes posthumously successful, and the narrator finds herself visiting his flat to help with an assessment of his book collection for resale. The voice throughout is unfussy and well suited to the denoument; the trouble is that the denoument delivers nothing unexpected. That is to say, creepiness ensues, of a kind that may be in the narrator’s head (having been sensitised by the man’s fiction) or may be real and which, if real, constitutes sexual abuse. Russell leaves enough unstated, and introduces enough doubt about his narrator’s perceptiveness and accuracy of recall, for the story to work passably well, but there’s no denying its predictability, and predictability (as a story like Joe Hill’s “Best New Horror” demonstrates) is itself a form of comfort. Although that said, arguably the most terrifying sentence in the story is the first, with its utter dreariness: ‘When I look back on my life in Eastbourne in the late 1980s, I find it amazing that I could ever have had enough time and energy to accomplish what I did’ (129).
There’s a writer at the centre of “The Family Face” by James Cooper, too, and here predictability has produced a story so snug in the grooves of genre that it’s barely there to criticize. Said writer is English, called Michael, and heading to the country for a week’s peace, quiet and writing; on his way he meets an odd and apparently itinerant family, one of whose members specialises in carving uncannily life-like dolls. Michael declines to take one, but on arriving at his remote retreat he finds himself haunted by a child carrying a half-finished doll. There is a wearying laziness to the tale — Michael’s first encounter with the boy is described as being ‘as though somewhere, just out of sight, the trace of someone’s nightmare was being inexplicably defined’ (91), rather than in a way that might actually evoke nightmarishness — and by the time Michael is thinking that ‘he knew implicitly that there was nothing remotely derivative about his own mounting disquiet’ (95) all you can do is roll your eyes.
Speaking, as we were earlier, of bad ways to introduce stories, here’s another: “I believe new writers are forced to be copyists by publishers who accept only work of a kind that has been successfully received”, says Clive Johnson. Whatever the truth of this assertion — and I’ll be charitable and accept that some attenuated version of it is true for at least some publishers at least some of the time — it smacks of defensivness for a writer, let alone a relatively new writer, to introduce his work this way. Unlike “Cell”, “Pieland’s Dream” doesn’t quite escape its introduction, either. It begins as a sort of club story, with one member of a writing group relating his dream to the others (and in the process renders the introduction doubly redundant by putting very similar sentiments into the mouths of its characters), and develops into a deconstruction of the desire for and impossibility of originality, as another member of the writing group begins to experience the dream, before they all perform in a play that recreates a key scene from the dream; the story gradually tightens its grip on them, ultimately killing one of the group. What’s good is Johnson’s willingness to be inventive; there’s a decent dialogue-heavy opening section that juggles its characters well, an almost dialogue-free section of some intensity, and sections towards the end rendered as a transcript. What doesn’t work so well is pacing; none of the sections feels quite the right length, and Johnson doesn’t quite manage to balance the different levels at which the story is operating. And there’s the sense that even if the form is original, acknowledging the familiarity of the base tale does not, here as in “Literary Remains” and “The Family Face”, translate into a successful iteration of it.
There are fewer writers, but not much more success, in the non-horror tales. Deborah Kalin’s “The Wages of Salt”, for example, seems to me a classic case of an interesting setting coupled to under-developed story. Alessia is a student in New Persia, an intriguing if sometimes baffling city-state on a salt desert. (One source of bafflement: why is salt “white gold”, the basis of New Persia’s economy, given its apparent abundance?) She is researching the nature of the “theriomorphs”, nicely realized half-man half-animal creatures that occupy the salt plains around the city; that research ultimately leads her, and us, to a new understanding of the therimorphs, and her. And sadly, that — plus a few rather perfunctory exchanges on ethics and pragmatism, and the abstract value of knowledge versus the immediate value of coin — is it. Similarly inessential is Neil Grimmett’s “A Hard Water”, a short, mimetic piece about fishing. The water of the title is a spot that appears to be idyllic and undiscovered, but in actuality is a hard water, which is to say one that refuses to give up its fish. The narrator, obsessesed with the place, is one of only two fishermen to stick it out over the season, hoping to land an enormous carp. There is a sort of rivalry with the other fisherman; there is the suggestion that his wife is using his absences to have an affair; there is a climactic storm, and a hint of the immanent fantastic. It is perfectly reasonable and unexceptional.
Livia Llwellyn’s “Horses” is the most fully realized sf piece, although it certainly carries a horror glaze: it is the story of the nuclear apocalypse and after as experienced by an American Missile Facilities Technician called Angela Kingston. Its ambitions are good, aiming for a mix of McCarthy nihilism and Russ anger, but the end result is too messy and melodramatic to match either. Llwellyn aspires to the cinematic, and some images, such as an emaciated man emerging from a dark tunnel “as if a swimmer is breaking the surface of the ocean”, are vivid; but too many others, such as nuclear explosions on the horizon described as “voluptuous jets of lightning-shot ziggurats” (22), are confused (can you even have a jet of ziggurats?). Emotional moments, too, tend to be overly dramatic, such as Kingston’s acceptance of radiation poisoning on the grounds that when it reaches her heart, it will be surprised to find said organ already gone; or the establishing assertion that “In the next twenty-four hours, she’ll take the pill, or a bullet. Which one it will be, she cannot say” (16). Which is a shame, because in many ways Kingston’s dysfunctionality — suicidal yet driven to survive — is narratively and psychologically promising, at least until Llewellyn stoops to soften her (slightly) with maternal love. Even the lack of a happy ending can’t stop that feeling like a bit of a betrayal. But it is better, at least, than Chris Bell’s “Shem-el-Nessim”, the title of which is also the name of a magically bewitching perfume, which may be linked to visions of a mysterious beautiful woman, and which includes sentences of this kind: “They lay together in the failing light of a late afternoon, the indescribably oriental fragrance of her skin buffering the room’s airlessness” (64). I’m not convinced a strong perfume in an airless room would work quite like that, but fine, it’s magic; and the deployment of “oriental” makes me cringe; but what really gets my goat is the addition of “indescribably”. Admittedly it is an easy word to misuse, but here it is misused in a way that makes everything else about the sentence worse. There is no irony: this is entirely straight-faced exoticisation for no original, or even unoriginal but strongly felt, reason.
Leaving “Cell” aside, the most intriguing stories are those which open and close the collection. Like so many of the pieces here, they reflect on storytelling; but they do so via cinema rather than prose, which seems to work better. Unsurprisingly, given that it both closes and lends its title to the anthology, Rio Youers’ “This is the Summer of Love” is also more explicitly than most of the pieces here about love — as an emotion, and as a story humans tell to each other. Nick Gevers’ overall introduction to the anthology singles Youers out as a “major discovery”; he apparently has a novella, a novel, and some more shorter fiction forthcoming from PS. “This is the Summer of Love” doesn’t, by itself, justify this investment, but it doesn’t suggest it’s a terrible mistake, either. It is assured and occasionally bold work: the story of Terri and Billy, two teenagers obsessed with classic film who fall in together for a summer. The perspective is primarily Terri’s. The story opens with an exchange of overheard, unattributed dialogue: Terri (as it turns out) asking Billy to take her away to California. Billy says no, because “he knows he can only be her hero for as long as she needs one” (158), which may raise eyebrows. Flashback to when they met: Terri miserable, beaten by her father, convinced that love exists only in movies, that it is “all sweet fiction” (159). Suddenly Billy is there, and Terri has fallen head over heels: “Everything was gray next to him” (159). His smile is so beautiful it is “celluloid”(161) — a particularly effective choice that, I think. He is Brando, Dean, Stewart rolled into one.
The most appealing thing about “This is the Summer of Love” is its willingness to be shamelessly intense and (unlike, say, “Horses”) to recognize the absurdity of that intensity. It is at times hyperreal, a tale of young love and domestic abuse told with the fevered vision of Hollywood. The highs are very high, the lows very low; and the highs often disguise the lows, like the make-up Terri applies to turn the ghostly image in her mirror into a starlet. A melancholy ambivalence can be discerned: Hollywood saves Terri, day to day, possesses her in a sense, while Billy saves and possesses her in another; and at the end she achieves a happy ending, but it is happy in large part because she wants to be possessed, just not by her father. Billy’s opening worry, in other words, seems in no danger of passing: she’ll always want a hero.
And in Norman Prentiss’ opening tale, “In the porches of my ears”, out of what at first seems to be blandly middle-class American narration — meet Steve, who is snobbish enough about cinema to disdain the usual blockbuster fare, but thinks arthouse means “subtitles or excessive nudity” — but becomes slightly more warty and convincing, something quite clever and moving emerges. Steve recounts a trip to the cinema with his wife Helen, in which a (deliberately genericised version of a) Working Title-esque contemporary British romantic comedy is spoilt by the couple sitting in front, one of whom is blind and the other of whom narrates the events on screen. Steve and Helen’s annoyance appears to be validated when the woman, seemingly cruelly, changes the ending, relaying a bitter interpretation of the closing scenes that causes her companion to break down in tears; yet when Steve approaches the man afterwards to explain the real ending, the thanks he gets is deeply sarcastic.
There is an obvious commentary here on writing and rewriting, and the idea that different people get different things from stories (something of which I’m never so conscious as when reading work marketed as horror); and it’s deepened by a second part to the story, which establishes certain parallels between the two couples, and is explicit about the idea — the horror — that there may be “awful, unnarrated tragedy” (10) beneath the surface of a tale. Much is left unsaid (in the satisfying, rather than maddeningly oblique, sense), and any fantastic component is (appropriately) left to the reader to infer. But what makes the story work particularly well as an opening tale is its dark spin on the overall title: certainly love has a summer, but by implication it therefore also, inevitably, has an autumn and winter. To resist this, the tale suggests, is a kind of solipsism, a desire to make a story of love ours, to own it and make it relevant to us, to close the aching gap between story and life without regard for the consequences. As an introduction, it might be saying: do not try to make the stories that follow fit your love. Let them be their own thing. I might reply: if only more of them had managed to achieve such independence, or aspired to.
Hoshruba is an exhausting delight. “It has consumed whole generations of readers before you”, warns the introduction to this volume, and while obsession is probably what was meant, used up works as well. My immediate feeling on turning the last of these four hundred and thirty pages of story, so remorselessly crowded with incident and imagery, was simply of being spent; and The Land and the Tilism is merely the first of a projected twenty-four comparably-sized volumes that will bring the complete work to the English-speaking world. (It is a mere five volumes in the original Urdu; but each somewhere in the region of 1,500 pages long.) Not necessarily in terms of the scope of the events described, but certainly in terms of their sheer number and duration, as an epic epic fantasy — for that is what it is and, lacking the knowledge to review it in its historical or cultural context, that’s what I’m going to review it as here — it knocks just about anything else you can think of into a cocked hat.
Some background. (Shamelessly recycled, I should note, from that introduction, elegantly composed by translator Musharraf Ali Farooqi.) You should have heard of The Adventures of Amir Hamza, a chronicle of the exploits of the uncle of the Prophet Muhammad, told in India as part of the dastan genre of oral epics. It was first collected, and no doubt at least partly composed, in the mid to late sixteenth century, incorporating many pre-existing fictions and legends, at the request of the Mughal Emperor Akbar. By the nineteenth century, however, it had become somewhat familiar. As Farooqi tells it, a group of storytellers in Lucknow decided to liven up the story with “an injection of local talent” — meaning that they would introduce into the tale elements from Indian and Islamic fantastical and folk traditions, in particular magic and magic-users, to run alongside the existing Arabian and Persian tropes.
But the new tales had to be indisputably part of the Amir Hamza cycle, for that was what audiences wanted, and were used to. The man who, in the mid-nineteenth century, probably came up with what can perhaps, crudely, be thought of as an unauthorized spin-off series (at least until authorization was provided by the approval of the audience) was one Mir Ahmed Ali. He seized on the defeat of a renowned enemy of Amir Hamza, the giant Laqa, as his point of departure. While Amir Hamza pursued Laqa, he decided, some of Hamza’s associates and relatives would find themselves entangled in events in a magical land; and these splitters would become the subjects of the new tales. By the time another Lucknow storyteller, Muhammad Husain Jah, was commissioned to produce the first (or first enduring) written version of the epic, the first volume of which appeared in 1883, Hoshruba had been a storming success for several decades. Jah’s books, on which the present translation is based, were best-sellers.
So this is clearly a notable work. The set-up runs roughly thus: out on a hunting trip, one of Amir Hamza’s sons, Prince Badiuz Zaman, accidentally kills one of the guardian sorcerers of the magical realm of Hoshruba, and in consequence is imprisoned by Afrasiyab, the Emperor. Hoshruba, we are to understand, is an immense tilism, a place created by infusing inanimate matter with magic. Most tilisms (it seems) are modestly sized, and created for a specific purpose — enchanting some bandits and preventing them from attacking you, say. Hoshruba is vastly larger, divided into three regions (Zahir, Batin and Zulmat, the manifest, hidden and dark regions), to the point where it is capable of containing other tilisms within itself. Nevertheless, Amir Hamza launches a campaign against Afrasiyab, after consultation with his diviners reveals that one of his grandsons, Prince Asad, is destined to conquer Hoshruba with the help of five tricksters. (Central to this is the acquisition of Hoshruba’s material key: as with all tilisms, control the key, and you control the fate of the tilism.) Hamza’s childhood companion Amar Ayyar is called up as lead trickster and, before long, the interlopers are fomenting rebellion within Hoshruba. The bulk of this volume (and, I presume, the bulk of Hoshruba) details the wax and wane of their struggles against Afrasiyab.
It proceeds like this:
… we return to Afrasiyab, who, after sending his reply, recited an incantation and clapped, whereupon a wisp of cloud materialized in the skies and descended to the ground. The sorcerer Ijlal, who was a king of one of the sixty thousand lands of Hoshruba and commanded an army of forty thousand sorcerers, dismounted that cloud, bowed to Afrasiyab, and asked, “Why has my master sent for me?” Afrasiyab said, “Lord Laqa has arrived in Mount Agate. He is being pestered by some creatures who have earned divine wrath and condemnation. Go forth and destroy them and rid Lord Laqa of their evil.” Ijlal answered, “As you please!” He rode the cloud back to his abode and commanded his army to get ready to March. Then he prepared himself for the journey and warfare and mounted a magic dragon. All his sorcerers also sat on magic swans, demoiselle cranes, flamingos, peacocks and dragons made of paper and lentil flour. Wielding tridents and pentadents and carrying their apparatus of sorcerery in sacks of gold cloth hanging from their necks, they departed toward Mount Agate with great pomp and ceremony, dripping wax over flaming, chaffing dishes and burning gugal to cast spells. (36-7)
Now we come to both the delight and the exhaustion. To deal with the latter first: Hoshruba is, much of the time – and not terribly surprisingly – episodic to the point of formulaic, and thus predictable. Moreover episodes are short and numerous. There are some of what we might call arc elements, but Hoshruba is predominantly what Farah Mendlesohn has called a “bracelet fantasy”; there is no necessary connection between the overarching quest and the individual adventures that take place. You can have as many links in your chain as you want, and the most common links in Hoshruba’s chain are encounters with sorcerers or sorcerersses, summoned by Afrasiyab to deal with Asad’s rebellion. So for all his grand introduction, twenty pages later Ijlal has been outsmarted by Amar Ayyar, realized Laqa is a false god, and converted to the True Faith; after which I’m not sure we ever hear from him again. And that’s actually pretty good going for a magic-user in this book. Most have had their heads cut off before half that many pages have elapsed.
Equally the book’s idiom, lavish to the point of hyperbole, can when read over a relatively short period become repetitive. Descriptions of beauty, in particular, suffer from diminishing returns. One princess is “the gazelle of the desert of beauty and a prancing peacock of the forest of splendour” (12); another is “an inestimable pearl of the oyster of love … the sun of the sky of elegance and beauty” (78-9); upping the stakes, of a third woman we are told that “no one had ever seen or heard of such splendour [no one who hasn’t read the preceding hundred pages, at least] … It seemed that her thighs were kneaded with powdered stars” (100); on the other hand, the beauty of a fourth “was so astonishing that even charming fairies were fit only to be her slave girls” (189), which seems almost mild by comparison.
As viewed with contemporary expectations of a prose narrative, these characteristics can be tiring. Particularly in the second half of the volume, once the story is up and running, there is little sense of progress. There is no map of the tilism, and judging by the way various characters zip back and forth between different locations, it may be a landscape in flux, anyway. Individual locations – cities, mountains and forests, mostly – can be strikingly described, but aside from the over-arching tripartite division of Hoshruba, there’s little sense of how the various jigsaw pieces we’re shown fit together. Nor is there much character development; there are, evidently, a great many sorcerers and sorcereresses in Hoshruba willing to try their luck against Asad and Amar (the list of “characters, historic figures, deities and mythical beings” is a healthy nine pages long), and even those who are converted to the True Faith show little sign of the interior life we expect of characters nowadays. (Technically they are persuaded to pledge allegiance to the True Faith; magic, in Hoshruba, is the province of divinity, which is why the tricksters and other followers of the True Faith have none, and if Afrasiyab’s minions genuinely converted, they would lose their magic powers and be useless to the rebel cause.) Equally, Asad and, particularly, Amar are definitionally infallible: there is no suspense about the fact of their triumph, sanctioned as it is by God, only in the detail of how it is achieved.
But that, of course, is the key to the delights of Hoshruba. Its pleasures are almost entirely immediate and local to whatever part of the story you happen to be reading: the detail of each individual adventure, or location, or character, and the constant arms race of tactics between Amar Ayyar’s tricksters and Afrasiyab’s sorcerers. The elaborately metaphoric idiom – “His mind dove into the sea of trickery and presently emerged with a pearl of thought” (110) – is to be revelled in, and is not without some self-awareness. (A list of Amir Hamza’s feared commanders includes Karit Shield-Whirler, Jamhur World-Conflagrer, and … Saif the Ambidextrous?) As is the narrative’s ludicrous casualness with huge numbers. Afrasiyab’s home base, an enormous tower called the Dome of Light, houses twelve thousand sorcerers on its first tier alone. At one point, there’s a passing mention of eighteen thousand princesses, which must be quite a family tree. And armies the size of Ijlal’s or larger are regularly disposed of in a sentence or two — this is, in one sense, the bloodthirstiest book I have ever read.
Many cultural details, Farooqi notes – styles of dress for example – are drawn from the contemporary surroundings of those who originally composed the epic. But there is, too, a constant flow of fantastic imagery; not for nothing is the tilism’s name drawn from the words for “senses” (hosh) and “ravishing” (ruba). Often, magic is instantiated in seemingly mundane items: “Sorcerers from both sides recited spells and exchanged magic citrons and limes, magic steel balls, clusters of arrows and needles, and garlands of chillies” (168). There are silver forests, rivers of blood, gemstone mountains and crystal cities, and magic beasts of every kind, as suggested in the above quote. There are magic slaves of steel, on horseback, and sorceresses who live as lightning bolts. It’s noticeable that none of these are described with the elaboration brought to bear on the characters’ appearance or actions. None of them, in other words, are described in such a way as to make them vivid and exciting; they are simply stated with the assumption that they are exciting.
And though each engagement between the tricksters and the sorcerers follows the same template – Afrasiyab calls up his latest minion (sometimes with an army, sometimes without); Ayyar or one of the other tricksters uses their skill at disguise (using magic paints and lotions) to lull said villain into a trap, at which point they use an egg of oblivion to render them unconscious, and either cut off their head, or stick a needle through their tongue to prevent spell-casting and convert them to the True Faith – over this template many elaborate variations are laid, to the point where the frantic complexity of some of the later episodes approaches farce. This sorcerer will set up a magic slave to shout out the true name of anyone who approaches; that sorcerer will reveal true faces in a magic mirror; another sorcereress will use magic water to prepare the ground in such a way as to render the tricksters unconscious; or Afrasiyab will consult the Book of Sameri, which reveals the truth of whatever is passing. (Once the existence of this tome is revealed, you do wonder why he ever does anything without consulting it first, however.) Sometimes one or more tricksters will be captured, only to be rescued by their companions before the coup-de-grace. At other times there will be a pitched battle between Afrasiyab’s latest army and whoever is on the rebel side at that point. Some characters, inevitably, do survive, and over the course of the book a substantial cast accumulates on both sides. On the rebel side the most notable is probably the sorceress Mahrukh Magic-Eye, mother of Prince Asad’s love, while on Afrasiyab’s side the most entertaining are certainly the five “beautiful, adolescent” trickster girls. Amar Ayyar and his colleagues immediately fall in love, and try to steal kisses from their beloveds; “the trickster girls,” we are told, “would let them come close then bite them” (214). The minxes.
As Anil Menon notes in his review, to allow the claim that the cover and website make for Hoshruba as “the world’s first magical fantasy epic” requires some contortion. But it does have a lot of the tropes – the quest, the secondary world, the dark lord – and in one crucial respect it is absolutely of a piece with the modern genre: this volume isn’t even close to being complete in itself. In fact, because Hoshruba – for all its frustrations, repetitions, and inconsistencies – is never less than engaging, when it does simply stop, even though we were forewarned, it’s a bit of a shock. You emerge, blinking, back into the world, because the truth of Hoshruba is that, like all good fantasies, it is itself a tilism: it infuses these inanimate pages with magic. It may be a while before I feel ready to tackle volume two but it is, in the end, a delight to be exhausted.
Fantasy, I think it is fair to say, is a little bit in love with acts of creation. It is the genre of extravagant creation, in fact, the fiction for which an intuitive understanding that both writing and reading are inherently creative acts is not sufficient: thus the monsters, maps and magic, and the praise for imaginative density and thoroughness. But most of this praise is directed at the density and thoroughness that goes with the creation of the world; hence, for example, the awareness — and implicit prioritization — of the story’s environment that goes with the tags “epic” and “urban”, hence the familiar litany of the famous places of fantasy. Less frequently do books stand out for creating textured and original experiences for their characters. This is not the same as saying that fantasy novels are prone to poor characterization; what I mean is that, for all its merits, in a book like The War With The Mein the characters are human on terms that we can immediately recognise and understand. Strangeness doesn’t enter into it, and not just because the characters are natives of their world. But you can argue that it should: that in a fantastical world, experience, patterns of thought, and the consequent characters should be, to some degree, alien to us.
This is, as Martin Lewis has pointed out, part of what Kit Whitfield gets up to in her very fine second novel, In Great Waters, with the additional complications that we follow both of the main characters growing up, that neither of them are ordinarily human, and that both are children of two worlds. They are hybrids, with blood from both the people of the land and the people of the sea in their veins; although beyond this similarity they mirror each other. Henry is born as Whistle, under the sea, his “bifurcated tail” marking him out as a freak, and providing a handicap that leaves him a target for bullying, and — until he realises he is more intelligent than most of his peers, and able to trick them — often struggling for food. Eventually his mother takes him to the place where “the world gave out”, that is, the shore, and abandons him. Whitfield is good on Henry’s life underwater, in his cradle, alien to us but not to him: the cruelty of it, the tribal rituals, the sense of space and motion that goes with life in three dimensions, the baffling otherness of the sky above the sea. But she is very good at Henry’s life on land, alien to him but not to us. After two days of lying in the surf, Henry is discovered by a man:
In the sea, he’d been small, smaller than other boys his age, but this skinny creature made Whistle feel tiny. Most strange of all was the tint of his skin, a pink-red pale colour like you got in the first few feet of water below the surface, before descent into the depths greyed everything out to shades of blue and green and white. The man himself gasped endlessly for air, inhaling again and again, faster than the waves beating on the shore. Whistle watched the straight limbs of the man as he paced, bizarrely inverted with his body upright as if permanently breaking the surface. (9)
The succeeding pages depict Henry’s experience of being raised by the above man to survive on land. Awareness of his position as (forgive me) a fish out of water is never neglected, and Henry’s situation quickly becomes engrossing. So he conceptualizes new information in terms of what is familiar to him — posture, and the tint of skin, in the quote above; later, he imagines soldiers as being like a shoal of fish — but more immediately, his surroundings are thoroughly strange. The world below had limits, but within itself no boundaries; on land, Henry is constantly thwarted by borders and barriers. He has trouble grasping the concept of nations, their scale and locatedness. More immediately, buildings are “an endless profusion of boxes that [daze] his focus with their stiff, enclosing order” (10; his unfamiliarity with right angles also makes the Christian cross a threatening symbol, a fact which becomes important later in the novel); clothes are “a blindfold for his body” (19); he feels constantly heavy, without the sea to support him, has to walk on crutches, and has to fight the urge to attempt to swim out the window of the room in which he is imprisoned. But as Nic Clarke notes, as good as the physical, tactile elements of Henry’s experience are, equally important are the conceptual challenges he faces. Language becomes a site of struggle. In keeping with their more animalistic intelligence, the language of the deepsmen is simple, declarative, consisting primarily of warnings or commands. English contrasts in every way: complex and contradictory, with meanings to Henry quite unlike those we might construct. One word is totemic: “to Henry, ‘understand’ meant to take up the posture of a landsman: impossible, and unwelcome” (40). So there is no sudden, total conceptual breakthrough, no moment when the nature of his new world becomes suddenly clear to Henry, only a slow, continuous, imperfect process of understanding and adaptation.
Then there is Anne. At this point some additional context is necessary. We are in early Renaissance (or thereabouts) England. The story, as told to Henry early in his captivity, is that first contact between landsmen and deepsmen took place in ninth-century Venice. The landsmen sent out ambassadors in boats, playing beautiful music; the boats were attacked and quickly sunk, and the landsmen moved into the city’s canals, resisting attempts to dislodge them. The situation worsened, and worsened again as Venice found itself under threat from land as well as sea. Then, a woman walked out of the water, and announced that she could command the deepsmen. Soon enough, Venice’s power was once again waxing, with any country dependent on trade or travel by water at the city-state’s mercy, and Angelica on the throne. An empire was forged and, ultimately, crumbled, as other countries learned to put hybrids on their thrones, to negotiate with their local deepsmen. In Anne and Henry’s time, landlocked countries remain relatively stable, but for everyone else Whitfield would have us believe (I can believe it) that times remain edgy. Deepsmen blood has become royal blood. The lines must be preserved at all costs, even as the blood thins, and in-breeding among royal families takes its toll. Every so often, a regime is deposed, as a new bastard emerges from the ocean; the last such event took place in France, a century ago. Now, Henry is being groomed for the same role in England; and Anne is the youngest granddaughter of the current king.
Anne’s narrative is, less ostentatiously but no less thoroughly than Henry’s, a masterclass in the construction of personal worlds. Like Henry, Anne has two worlds, the land and the sea; but they are not Henry’s land and sea. For Anne, the land is home, where she was born. It is still a place whose rules must be learned: her world is the court, after all. Like Henry, Anne is a disappointment to her parents, and to the court: “born a disappointment”, we are told, “but such was often the fate of royal girls” (57). A second girl, in fact, and not only that — meaning that England has no heir ready to take over from an aging king, and that marriages will have to be brokered. This fact becomes only more urgent when Anne’s father, the king’s first son, dies, because the second son, Philip, is no heir. He is, however, an extraordinary, grotesque creation, a full deepsman throwback (tail and all), dumb and violent, driven by unreflexive desire, yet horribly indulged by the landsmen around him. So where for Henry it is the physical challenges of life on land that are most immediate, for Anne it is the political challenges, the constant negotiation of the invisible protocols that shape a society. And no wonder, then, that for Anne the water — which was Henry’s cradle, yet never his home — is a place of freedom. Periodically, the court visits the coast, so that the royals may swim and negotiate with the local deepsmen tribes; but though these visits are a duty, they offer Anne a degree of mental, social and physical escape. “Anne felt stronger, wider awake […] she turned with a flex of the spine that felt almost forbidden in its ease” (78). Of course, this simplicity does not last.
As time passes — we follow both Henry and Anne from childhood to young adult-hood, although with little of the emotional familiarity that such a framework would usually imply — we see how the pair are shaped by their worlds. By their existence, for us Henry and Anne shade each other, but it is their contexts that make them different. Faced with a deteriorating situation at court, we are told that Anne, “not knowing what to do, did nothing”; and that “in consequence, rumours began to build that she was a simpleton” (80). Her deepsman heritage here comes in handy. In moments of high emotion, her face becomes lit by phosphorescence, creating a rather grisly visage — “The effect was only to cast her eyes into shadow, rendering the sockets hollow like a skull” (58) — but one that allows her to build a façade behind which Anne can maintain her own thoughts and a secret self. Of necessity, she becomes observant, careful, resourceful and brave, as she attempts to assert some measure of control over her life. Henry, meanwhile, is raised on land with the expectation that he will one day be king, and acquires the ambition and arrogance that go with that, but neither does he escape the feral, mercurial part of his nature, and he is consequently defined by fear and, inevitably, by anger. Whitfield does a marvellous job with this latter emotion, in particular: Henry is a potent portrayal of the destructive, distorting effect of anger. That he is able to use it is a hollow comfort; it defines him for too much of his life, bringing isolation and instability and reinforcing incomprehension. When he finally meets Anne, his reaction could be Philip’s, if we could believe Philip could articulate his thoughts so clearly: “He would have liked to defeat her, somehow, beat her down in a fight or make her obey him, to stop her face from troubling him any further. He wanted to eat her tongue” (222).
There is, of course, recursion here: the differing experiences of Anne and Henry create our sense that they exist in different worlds; and those different worlds give rise to differing experiences in turn. They read the world, and the world writes back on to them. But in a less subjective sense they live in the same world; and in order to make any headway against the forces that constrain them they each have to, somehow, gain the other’s world. Gradually their stories do merge: from alternating fifty-page chunks we move to alternating chapters, then paragraphs, and then finally the two are together in a single narrative. But their alliance is one of pragmatism, not romance. For Anne, Henry is a way out; for Henry, it is simply that Anne is the first person he has met to speak both his languages, the only one who has a chance of understanding both his worlds.
I have talked so little about the actual story of In Great Waters because, in a sense, it is extremely simple. Stripped down, it is a fantasy of political agency. “Given the right push”, the narrator tells us, “customs could change” (326); and Henry and Anne, thanks to their dual and doubled perspectives, can get themselves into a position from which they can give the right push. But familiar arc though this may be, it is never less than deeply felt, made credible by the texture of its protagonists’ experience. Whitfield’s language is (indeed, languages are, given the attention paid to the representation of the deepsmen tongue) carefully tailored to support her creation. The writing is not archaic, but shaped by a few choices that leave an archaic flavour in the mind: there are almost no contractions, almost no use of the continuous present tense. (I might compare the carefully complementary artifice in this novel to the carefully contrary artifice on display in Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle.) Whitfield’s shifts in emotional register are adroit, and her grasp on her narrative is assured. So it is possible to believe that Henry and Anne can create their world anew.
But putting it this way is too sentimental for an unsentimental novel. To my mind there is a powerful Darwinian undercurrent to In Great Waters, not just in the portrayal of the deepsmen — their lives, red in tooth and claw, and the impression that they are water-adapted humans, part of the ecology, not magical creations — but in the clear understanding throughout the book that both Henry and Anne are unfit only to the extent that they do not match their environment. So perhaps it would be more apt to say that what they do is to open up a new niche in which they can live safely. Or to emphasize their strength, and say that like Whitfield’s first novel, Bareback (2006), In Great Waters is ultimately a story about ways of being human, however alien you seem: a reminder that more than reading or writing, the greatest act of creation available to us is living.
It’s a small part of a big book, but I want to start by saying that I like how David Anthony Durham handles his map. We know what The Tough Guide to Fantasyland has to say about maps: that to see one at the front of a book is to know that you must not expect to be let off from visiting every damn place shown on it. At first glance, Durham does not disappoint. Indeed, he opens with a tour, in which an unnamed, pale-skinned assassin rides out from a stronghold in the North, down across the frozen plains of the Mein plateau, down through the fertile woodlands of the Methalian Rim; he then passes through the port of Alecia and boards a boat for the island of Acacia, seat of the empire that dominates the Known World, and home of his target, Leodan Akaran, the king. At each stage the culture and climate of the region through which the assassin is passing are described, along with the darkening colouration of its inhabitants. It’s a smooth introduction to a slice of the world, and it shapes our understanding of the rest of Book One of The War With The Mein (which is itself Volume One of Acacia), also known as “The King’s Idyll”. The next two hundred and fifty or so pages focus primarily on the seat of empire, and there introduce the main cast, each in their own chapter: Leodan himself, aging widower king; his chancellor, and “first ear for any secret” (32), Thaddeus Clegg; his four children (in descending order of age), noble Aliver, brittle Corinn, precocious Mena, and innocent Dariel; a talented Acacian general, Leeka Alain, stationed in the assassin’s homeland; and Rialus Neptos, scheming governer of the fortress where Alain’s army is barracked. A few players remain to be introduced — notably Hanish Mein, brother of that assassin, leader of his “tribal, warlike, bickering” people, and architect of a multi-pronged invasion that stuns the Acacian empire with its speed, ferocity and thoroughness — but you get the idea. This is a story of princes and princesses, soldiers and battles, empires and destinies. With what can only be called, despite its chunkiness, admirable economy, The War With The Mein covers years and a continent. It asks us to learn (and think about) a lot, and by the end of it, we have travelled to each compass point of The Known World. It is, oh, what’s that word? Epic.
But, much as I love a story with scope, such a summary gives only a partial sense of what it is like to read The War With The Mein. There is an iceberg effect here. A Known World — and this is what I like about his map — implies an Unknown World, after all, and what I have so far failed to convey is that the contract made by the story is that it will, when all is said and done, tell a true societal epic, by which I mean an epic that takes at least as much account of large-scale socioeconomic changes as it does of the martial and heroic adventures of a chosen few. Durham’s chosen style is appropriate to the task: dignified, measured, explicative (occasionally ponderous), with an echo of Guy Gavriel Kay, though Durham is less lyric, and more clinical in his dissections of his characters for our edification. When you’ve finished reading this paragraph, for instance, you will know pretty much all you need to know about Leodan Akaran:
Leodan Akaran was a man at war with himself. He carried on silent conflicts inside his head, struggles that raged one day into the next without resolution. He knew it was a weakness in him, the fault of having a dreamer’s nature, a bit of the poet in him, a scholar, a humanist: hardly traits fit for a king. He enveloped his family in the luxurious culture of Acacia, even as he hid from them the abhorrent trade that funded it. He planned for his children never to experience violence firsthand, even though this privilege was bought with a blade at others’ necks. He hated that countless numbers throughout his lands were chained to a drug that guaranteed their labor and submission, and yet he indulged in the same vice himself. He loved his children with a breathless passion that sometimes woke them in terror from dreams of some misfortune befalling them. But he knew that agents working in his name ripped other parents’ children from their arms, never to be seen again. It was monstrous, and in many ways he felt it was his fault. (114)
Many chapters begin with this sort of thing. These are characters who are not allowed to keep very many secrets from their readers; the nuances of their emotional progressions are laid out in careful detail, meaning that if there is sometimes suspense about what exactly they are going to do, the cumulative effect is that we almost always know with piercing clarity why they act. More, this is how Durham gets in a lot of his background. Every sentence in the above paragraph is about Leodan, but most of them are telling you something about how he feels about the world – how he has been shaped by it; in The War With The Mein this is far more common than the reverse – and thus telling you something about the world. There is also a greater-than-average amount of diegesis, or put another way, a relative lack of direct speech (and hence, banter: none of your Scott Lynch snap here) and direct action (there’s a bit more of this, particularly late on, but, for example, the first major battle of the war takes place off-screen), to the point that I don’t think it would be entirely unfair to suggest that The War With The Mein is interested in its characters and their inner lives less for their own sakes, and more for the light those lives can shed on their roles as historical agents. These are, the novel appears to say — thanks to the aesthetic choices that shape it, as much as in any explicit sense — the people by whose actions this world will be turned: now watch it turn.
There is certainly a lot to be turned. “This world is corrupt from top to bottom,” as Thaddeus at one point puts it to Aliver. Acacia, home of our heroes, is a slaving empire — it is said as bluntly in the novel — supported by a trade that sees thousands of children shipped into bondage each year, in exchange for a supply of a drug, Mist, that is fearsomely addictive, and keeps the populace numb and domesticated, such that they don’t object next time the Quota comes around. More details become clear as the novel unfolds, of course, but this much is laid out for the reader very early on and returned to very often. As Leodan says, however, for the royal children this truth is initially hidden. The King’s Idyll is ignorance. It is symptomatic of a wider cultural malaise, and one of the reasons Hanish Mein hates the empire. “We Meins live with the past,” he tells his people. “It is the Akarans who rewrite the past to suit them” (173). Sure enough, the legends we learn in the first few chapters of the book about the founders of Acacia and the ancestors of the Akarans turn out to only be true from a certain point of view. But Acacian blinkers go beyond history — and here we come back to the map. It is Mena Akaran who asks the question that frames the rest of the book:
“Why is Acacia always at the centre of maps?” she asked. [Like the one at the front of this novel, she cannot say.] “If the world curves and has no end — as you taught us, Jason — how is one place the centre and not another?”
Corinn found the question silly. […] “It just is the center, Mena. Everyone knows that.”
“Succinctly put,” Jason said, “but Mena does make a point. All peoples think of themselves first. First, central, and foremost, yes? I should show you a map from Talay sometime. They draw the world quite differently.” (24)
The story of Books Two and Three of The War With The Mein (“Exiles” and “Living Myth”) is largely the story of how the royal children come to terms with having their perspective shattered: how they come to terms with knowledge of their inherited guilt, and of the true shape of the world. Though we never leave the map’s boundaries, “The Known World” is, as we may have suspected, very far from being the Whole World. The slave trade that supports Acacia is managed by a commercial organization, the League of Vessels, on behalf of a people, the Lothan Aklun, who appear on no Acacian map. Hanish Mein’s invasion is only a success because he negotiates new deals with these powers. We will turn to them, presumably, in the second and third volumes of the trilogy (volume two, out later this year, is called The Other Lands, though there are reasons internal to volume one to understand that some form of exploration is inevitable), but in the meantime we begin to appreciate that the Known World is not nearly top dog. And every time we check a location, the map at the front of The War With The Mein serves as a reminder of how incomplete the story told so far really is.
Absent that reminder, it would be easy to get lost in the sweep of Durham’s story, because Durham really is good at sweep. So: the royal children are spirited out of the capital as the inevitability of Mein victory becomes apparent, dispersed to various corners of the empire to be raised in secrecy. Three of them make it. The fourth, Corinn, is recaptured and held in a gilded cage by Hanish Mein. Of the others, Mena washes up on an island in the East, hailed as a living incarnation of the local goddess of wrath; Dariel joins the pirates of the West, harrying the League of Vessels and others who ply the same waters; and Aliver is sent to one of the tribes of Talay, in the South, where he becomes a warrior, and a leader. There are adventures and excitements in all four strands of the story, for the most part executed with some flair. In another review I would pay more attention to the vigour that Mena and Aliver, in particular, bring to their fighting by fusing their arthritic Acacian “forms” — literally rehearsals of famous conflicts — with the techniques of other cultures. “Unlike the forms”, we are told, the new style of warfare that Aliver must learn “allowed no actions not entirely necessary” (284). In that other review I might suggest that part of Durham’s project with Acacia is to infuse the forms of epic fantasy with a similar energy. In this review, however, I will point out that it is another way in which Durham is economical: we only get the full Mary Gentle blood-and-guts fury late in the book, when it has most impact, in part because the characters are not capable of giving physical voice to their anger until then. Sometimes, certainly, economy works against the book, such as when Mena goes from swordfighting neophyte to winner of the local tournament in one chapter (chapter forty-seven, thirteen and a half pages), but at other times it is incredibly refreshing. A raid by Dariel on one of the League’s mighty trading platforms, for example, is similarly conceived and executed within a single chapter, and all the better for it, while Aliver’s inevitable quest sees him set out in one chapter and arrive in the next. This isn’t just a matter of pacing; the sense is that there is a lot of story here that could be told, a lot of canvas to be covered, and that (as with the map) Durham is being very selective about what he’s showing us. So what we do get carries weight.
And so you have to think about what it adds up to. Hannah Strom-Martin is right, I think, to identify something fundamentally American in The War With The Mein’s underpinnings; I do not consider myself competent to fully unpack this aspect of the novel, but it’s hard for an observer not to notice that Acacia’s trade with the Lothan Aklun conflates a great sin of America’s past (industrialized slavery) with a great boogeyman of its preset (drugs), and that framing the trade as a product of the supremacy of one race over others is a twist of the knife. Mein aggression is, in part, the aggression of a marginalized race against a dominant one; “Had the entire world,” the assassin sneeringly wonders, “forgotten pride of race?” (102). Equally the ignorance of the Akarans is not just the ignorance of children kept in the dark by parents; it is the ignorance of the privileged, and their exiles are, in part, about challenging that ignorance. So, for example, when Aliver communes with the immortal sorcerers that lurk at the end of his quest, his eyes are opened:
All races are one? Aliver asked.
All races of the Known World are one, Nualo said. Forgetting this was the second crime done by humans. We suffer for it still.
Aliver would have to live with this new version of the world for some time for it to become real for him. […] He was so sure of his own failings that he had sought to hide them every day of his life. None of this had shaken his belief that the differences observed on people’s outsides mirrored equally indisputable differences within. Nualo and the other Santoth slipped this belief from beneath his feet and left him drifting upon a sea of entirely unimagined possibility. For reasons he did not fully acknowledge, this troubled him more than any of the other revelations he received from the Santoth. (416)
(I wonder, now, about that first answer: “All races of the Known World are one”. It has a weasel quality about it that makes me wonder what we may find in the Other Lands. As of the end of The War With The Mein, we have seen only one race from that continent: the Numrek, barbaric and brutal fighters — pale-skinned Orcs, essentially — who serve as Hanish Mein’s shock troops, and whose human-ness, or lack thereof, is a point of debate throughout the book. I had taken it as axiomatic that, per the logic of Aliver’s revelation, the Numrek would be confirmed as human, too. Re-reading the above I am not so sure.)
No zealot like a convert: Aliver is driven forward by a vision of dramatic reform: “He, when victorious, would not rule over them. He’d rule for them. By their permission and only in their interests” (613). The Lincolnesque tone there is unmistakeable, surely, and stirring. Nor is the attack of the white-but-powerless Mein against the brown-but-powerful Acacians as straightforward a revision as it seems: the Acacian empire is set up in such a way as to sustain the power of one race over others, but (as it turns out), the blind mechanisms of the state don’t much care which race is pulling the levers. Hanish finds “the Acacian template the only reasonable, achievable answer” (320) for many situations; the institutions, once created, are resistant to change. Indeed, we are told that Hanish’s rule is rather worse for the average citizen than Leodan’s was. So much for the actions of a few turning the world.
Or so you might think. But all of this is talk on behalf of a general populace whose absence leaves a ragged hole at the core of The War With The Mein. There is no street-level perspective in this book. Certainly, as I mentioned, the Akaran children all have their privilege challenged by their exile. For Mena, the challenge comes as she flees, and is confronted by the desolation and cruelty of an enormous mine run by her family. “Clearly,” she realises, “the world was not as she had been led to believe […] Those people, those children … they worked for her” (327). Dariel, meanwhile, is the most sympathetically inclined of the children from the start, being the youngest and having befriended some of the palace staff even before the trouble starts. But entering Talay, on his way to join Aliver’s crusade, he finds himself disoriented by the polychromatic display that leaves him feeling that his brown skin is “weak tea in a sea of black coffee” (494). “Nobody looked at his features and read his identity on his forehead”, he realises. “How could he be central to the workings of the world when nobody even knew who he was?” (496). And Corinn faces the realization that her dark-skinned features, so beautiful to her countrymen, are unappealing in the face of icy Mein standards of attractiveness. Yet each of these incidents is extremely limited, and none of them feel lasting. Mena becomes a goddess, moving from one privileged position into another; Dariel is back at his brother’s side, back at the heart of events, within pages of the above doubts; and although Corinn never fully loses her outsider status, she does find that she is attractive to at least some of the Mein. (The relationship that results is not the most successful part of the novel — indeed, neither Corinn’s story nor Mena’s is impervious to feminist critique. But they are well-done iterations of their kind, and may develop further.) It all leaves the grand sentiments of equality espoused by Aliver ringing slightly hollow. A story about the inadequacy of a model of history based solely on the actions of Great Individuals cannot get by only telling the stories of the elite, even if it is to reveal that, in the bigger picture, they too are constrained.
While reading the book, this does cause problems. It gets repetitive to be told that the Akarans (or at least Aliver) are fighting on behalf of a mass of people we don’t know, and whose plight we are to a large extent taking on trust; and at the same time, there is something unavoidably patronising about such a fight, for all Aliver’s tentative yearning towards a more democratic social order. Moreover it leaves some of the detail of the current social order – precisely how it sustains itself – vaguer than is desirable. But all this may be deliberate. I am more than half-convinced that it is, that the social gap in the book is part of the contract made, intended to be as keenly felt as the geographic vacuum within which these events take place. The War With The Mein appears to stop at a natural ending – the Akaran lineage is restored, and the Mein are vanquished. But this is, as an epilogue makes clear, a metastable situation at best. The relationship between Acacia and the Lothan Aklun has changed and will have to be addressed. But by all rights, the internal politics of the Empire will also be thrown into disarray. No trade with the Lothan Aklun means no Mist, and no Mist means that at least some people should be thinking about Aliver’s dream. So the end of The War With The Mein is an end that requires more story, and more radical change, to complete its argument. There are hints that Durham is well aware of this — a revelation that the characters we have become invested in are not the centre of the story would seem to be foreshadowed by the demonstration of the limits of their control; and Aliver is seen by at least some people not as a saviour but as a “lesser evil” — and it is Mena, once again, who asks the pertinent question. “Are we going to make a better world?” (682). I hope so. I want to believe so. I want to know what happens when the Whole World is the Known World. Because the map thing isn’t so small after all: to say that I like how Durham handles his map is to say that — so far — I like how he handles his world.
[January 2010: review of the second volume of the trilogy, The Other Lands]
The Forest of Hands and Teeth opens with an arresting image: the narrator, Mary, recalls a long-lost photograph of a relative standing in the ocean, and notes that what really endures is not the detail, but the impression of “a little girl surrounded by nothingness”. The relevance of this image quickly becomes clear. Mary’s village lives under siege, surrounded by a forest filled with monsters, protected by fences, guards and patrols. The monsters in question are ex-humans, creatures of “tattered clothes, sagging skin […] horrible pleading moan[s], and […] fingers scraped raw from pulling at the metal fences” (2). They get that way as a result of being bitten by one of the infected. To call them zombies, as they never are within the pages of the book, is accurate but loses a nuance of tone: the other void that surrounds Mary is an absence of knowledge, so (among other things) she is never given the chance to know the word “zombie”, or to use it. To her, the monsters are the Unconsecrated. And they are seen, not as mindless, but rather as singled-minded: their unlife is unendingly, unrelentingly, “only about one need, one desire” (184).
The order of Sisters that controls Mary’s village, much like some religious institutions today, isn’t so very keen on uncontrolled desire. Oh, they speak of freedom: “There is always a choice,” they proclaim. “It is what makes us human, what separates us from them” (34). And it is in putative service to this maxim that infected individuals are not summarily executed, but are allowed to decide whether they want to be killed, or released into the forest to join their new brethren. But other kinds of choice are in short supply. An unmarried woman has precisely three options: live with her family; marry into another family; or join the Sisterhood. Of necessity, Mary ends up plumping for door number three, which in turn leads her to new knowledge about the world in which she lives: right up to the point at which her village is overrun by the Unconsecrated, and she is forced to flee into the forest, making use of a forbidden network of fenced pathways, of uncertain origin and unknown destination.
This second half of The Forest of Hands and Teeth is to my mind rather better than the first, because Carrie Ryan has constructed an affectless, somewhat numbed voice for Mary, and I think it handles action rather better than reflection. Here, for example, Mary grieves for her mother, infected in the novel’s first chapter and released into the Forest shortly thereafter:
I lie on the floor with my eyes closed and body limp, trying to feel my mother’s hands in my hair as I repeat the stories she used to tell me over and over again in my mind. I refuse to forget any details and I am terrified that I already have. I go over each story again — seemingly impossible stories about oceans and buildings that soared into the heavens and men who touched the moon. I want them to be ingrained in my head, to become a part of me that I cannot lose as I have lost my parents. (20-1)
It’s telling, I think, that Mary refers to the detail of the stories she’s recalling but that Ryan — writing in first-person present, note — refuses to give us those details. We are kept on the surface, away from the core of Mary, away from the depths of her feelings. As a result, those feelings are never evoked with as much intensity as the situation seems to deserve; the horrific claustrophobia of the village, for example, is never as overwhelming as I would have liked. Indeed the village itself is never described in any but the most generic terms. The Cathedral from which the Sisterhood rules is simply “an old stone building built well before the Return” (7). Abstracting a tone from a cluster of real-world references is one thing, but an excess of Significant Capitalization does not an Atmosphere make.
But the style works rather better when the Unconsecrated are on the rampage. Then, the immediacy, the focus on surfaces and the progression from one action to the next makes much more sense. More than once, Ryan is able to establish and maintain a sense of urgency that is sustained precisely by the lack of meaningful introspection; no thought, only action, detailed in something akin to slow motion: “Beside him on the platform men pull at bows, letting loose arrows towards targets somewhere behind me. I can feel the compression of an arrow splitting the air as it cuts next to my head. I don’t know if the arrow was meant for me or for something behind me and I refuse to look over my shoulder to find out. Reality is too much to bear at this moment and so I shove it aside” (128). The problem with this, of course, is that as well done as it is, it’s one of the only real virtues of the novel, and it’s something that films, television and computer games — visual media — will always do rather better than prose fiction. And there is a sense that The Forest of Hands and Teeth is waiting to be made into a film. The action sequences are Hollywood-polished — and, indeed, when Mary suddenly demonstrates heretofore unhinted at l33t zombie beheading skillz, Hollywood-improbable.
Equally, the relationships are Hollywood-superficial. At the heart of the book’s keystone romance, between Mary and one of the village men, Travis, is something ambitious and challenging, I think. Mary’s love for Travis is never justified or elaborated; it is simply a given. Equally, Travis’s love for Mary goes unexamined until quite late in the book with, in the meantime, paroxysms of adoration — “‘Oh Mary,’ he says, thrusting his hand into my hair and cupping my head […] ‘Mary,’ he whispers. I can feel the movement of his lips” (89) — substituting for anything resembling conversation, or any sense of a meaningful connection between two individuals. Their desire, in other words, is the same selfish, short-sighted, and ultimately unsatisfying kind of desire as that which drives the Unconsecrated. Whether or not it is even a choice, in the meaningful, human sense identified earlier is in doubt. The trouble is that the novel never quite commits to saying this out loud, as it were; for all the casual gruesomeness and violence that comes with the Unconsecrated, this sort of unconsecrated desire is apparently beyond the pale, or the page: the passion that might make Mary and Travis’ mutual obsession convincing is missing, replaced with coy allusions to waking up in each others’ arms.
Too, there seems to me to be something not quite successful about Ryan’s refiguring of zombies. When Danny Boyle and Alex Garland used them to express mindless rage in 28 Days Later (2002), they famously embodied this change as intensity, as speed. Ryan’s Unconsecrated, in contrast, are not particularly differentiated to achieve her metaphoric purpose; instead she borrows familiar traits. (There is even a fast zombie, confirmation if any were needed that the Boyle/Garland variant has become a trope in its own right.) And so they continue to also stand for death, for “the fear of death always tugging at you. Always needing you, begging you” (214). The problem with this layering is twofold, I think. First, it doesn’t just say that single-minded desire will destroy you; it suggests that something like the Sisterhood is needed to keep it at bay. Second, death really is a slow, shambling inevitability; and so an ending that offers an escape to what appears to be a genuinely safe haven, even if that escape comes at a cost, even if it affirms the fundamental selfishness of your protagonist, cannot help but fail, on some level, to satisfy.
Immediately after reading The Forest of Hands and Teeth, I happened to pick up Janni Lee Simner’s Bones of Faerie. On the face of it, the two books are not dissimilar, but the comparison is not kind to Ryan’s novel. Like The Forest of Hands and Teeth, Bones of Faerie is a post-apocalyptic narrative, told in the first person by a young woman who, when we meet her, is living in a village that has regressed to pre-industrial technology and social structures, from which she journeys out into the world beyond. Both protagonists struggle with the absence of their mother. Both books are stylistically straightforward. (Both, at least in the editions I own, happen to have striking Stephenie Meyer-esque iconic-image-on-black-background covers. And both, as if you couldn’t guess by this point and if you care, were written as Young Adult fiction, and are their authors’ first books for the YA audience.) And, like Ryan’s novel, Bones of Faerie opens with an arresting image, this time of the narrator’s baby sister abandoned by their father, for bearing the “hair clear as glass from Before”, that signals the touch of faerie. “We knew the rules,” Liza says.
Don’t touch any stone that glows with faerie light, or that light will burn you fiercer than any fire. Don’t venture out alone into the dark, or the darkness will swallow you whole. And cast out the magic born among you, before it can turn on its parents.
Towns had died for not understanding that much. My father was a sensible man.
But the memory of my sister’s bones, cracked and bloody in the moonlight, haunts me still. (2)
There is, no doubt, an essay I need to write at some point exploring the kinds of combinations of fantasy and science fiction elements that work for me and the kinds that do not: for now, suffice to say that a story set in a world devastated by war between humanity and Faerie hits the sweet spot, and hits it good. It helps that Simner is constantly inventive and effective in her portrayal of this altered world; small stuff, mostly, such as the magically evergreen trees (“Mom said before the War, leaves had changed color in autumn […] it would take a fire now to make any tree release its grip that easily”, 8), or crops that resist being harvested (“In the distance, corn ears moaned as townsfolk pulled them free”, 9); and every so often, another arresting image:
A moth flew toward the fire and through the flames. It flew out again with the veins in its gray wings glowing orange. Moths were drawn to light and always took some away with them when they found it. (29)
I find that an extraordinarily concise, delicate and effective evocation of strangeness; and Simner sprinkles the pages of her characters’ quest with this sort of thing, bringing the landscape of her novel alive in a way that I never felt with The Forest of Hands and Teeth. On the other hand, compared to Ryan’s set-pieces, Simner’s attempts at action are much less tense and visceral — though this is not to say that Bones of Faerie is without drive. For a portal-quest fantasy (which it undeniably is), the story is pleasingly brisk. Driven by the suspicion that she has been touched by magic, and fearful of what her already authoritarian father, in particular, would do to her if he found out, in short order Liza flees into the woods around her village, is rescued by the inhabitants of another village (who turn out to have embraced magic, rather than shunned it), learns more about the world, and sets out on a quest to rescue her mother, who she believes is trapped in Faerie. The instant acceptance — or indulgence — of Liza’s choice is only one of the ways in which Simner’s hews closely to the cliches of portal-quest stories: for Liza does turn out to be a child of special potential, born to important parents, and responsible for Healing the Land.
It’s how well Simner works within this framework, and how she finesses it, that makes Bones of Faerie. There is, for example, a charming moment when Liza overhears some other characters, and the reader realizes they are engaged upon their own story, which for them is just as important as the one we’re reading. Simner’s faeries, also, are pretty much just humans with magic, not given to tricks or spite any more or less than the regular kind. It’s a pleasingly fresh approach that allows Simner to comment gently on prejudicial assumptions. And perhaps most importantly, while magic has undeniably reshaped the land, it cannot be done away with. “Magic destroyed the world,” Liza tells one of her rescuers. “Indeed,” he replies. “And now it’s the only tool we have to mend it” (80). It’s a pragmatic approach, one that feels true to the way the world really evolves; and it means that to heal the land is not to restore it to some ideal state, but to accept and accomodate its evolution. The image Simner uses to communicate this accommodation, when it comes, is both delightful in itself, and delightfully well-chosen in the context of the rest of the novel.
The counterpoint to all this delicacy comes in visions that afflict Liza, increasingly as the book wears on: stark flashes of places she has not been and events she could not have seen. Many are of the war: “Dirt churning like flour in a sieve, and the people slipping from view one by one, their hands grasping air to the last, leaving behind only dirt and roots and jagged bone” (161). Most brutal of all is the uncovering of what humanity is capable of in response. It is a darkness that shades but never distorts the book: again there is the sense of a framework being carefully used, of everything in its proper place and most effective proportion. A less charitable way of saying this is to suggest that in both subject matter and emotional focus, Simner’s book is arguably less adventurous than Ryan’s; Bones of Faerie is straightforwardly a book about loss and renewal. So Liza, of course, is possessed of generic amounts of practicality and pluck, and learns to control the magic lurks within her, and there is an undeniable inevitability to the way in which she confronts her father at the novel’s climax. But the confrontation is more plausibly choreographed than, for example, any of Mary’s heroics in The Forest of Hands and Teeth, with the result that Liza’s catharsis is no less freeing for being expected, while Mary’s release feels like a betrayal. That difference between the two books, in the end, outweighs any number of similarities.
I have seen it said that it’s a bad sign when a review begins with discussion of a work other than the one under immediate consideration: that it betokens a lack of confidence in the book on the table. It’s not a stricture I particularly agree with, but neither is it a tactic I find myself deploying very often, simply because I usually find the text at hand suggests the most immediate and direct route to whatever it is I want to say. When it comes to The Woman Who Thought She Was A Planet and Other Stories, however, and considering what the collection is and is not, I find my thoughts returning to a story of Vandana Singh’s that isn’t included. Distances, published as a standalone volume by Aqueduct Press at the end of last year, is by some way Singh’s longest work to date — it is on its own about half the length of The Woman Who Thought She Was A Planet — and her most science-fictionally complex and ambitious tale. Set, unlike any of her other stories that I’ve read, far in the future and far away, Distances tells the story of Anasuya, a “rider” who explores mathematical problems via a technology that renders abstract mental landscapes into navigable simulations. (I was reminded somewhat of Rez.) It’s an absorbing tale, if perhaps one that doesn’t quite earn all its length, but what I want to highlight here is how beautifully apt its title is, not just because of the many distances that are worked into the narrative — geographic, intellectual, emotional, societal — but because of the way the abstract notion of distance is seen as an integral part of human existence. Distances, in other words, lend Anasuya’s society its sense of completeness; and indeed, perhaps the most satisfying thing about Distances is how irreducible it feels, how Singh mixes mathematical, artistic and sociocultural speculation in a way that feels holistic precisely because it is aware of where those different domains intersect and interact. The distances in The Woman Who Thought She Was A Planet are more familiar; and the speculations are smaller, if not more tame; but for Singh’s characters, the negotiation of the two is usually no less challenging.
Or, to put it another way:
Meanwhile, she continued to read her science fiction novels because, more than ever, they seemed to reflect her own realization of the utter strangeness of the world. Slowly the understanding came to her that these stories were trying to tell her a great truth in a very convoluted way, that they were all in some kind of code, designed to deceive the literary snob and waylay the careless reader. And that this great truth, which she would spend her life unraveling, was centered around the notion that you did not have to go to the stars to find aliens or to measure distances between people in light-years. (18)
That’s from the very end of “Hunger” (2007), which opens Singh’s collection, and which I have written about before. Or, to put it yet a third way:
So much modern realist fiction is divorced from the physical universe, as though humans exist in a vacuum devoid of animals, rocks, and trees. Speculative fiction is our chance to rise above this pathologically solipsist view and find ourselves part of a larger whole; to step out of the claustrophobia of the exclusively human and discover joy, terror, wonder, and meaning in the greater universe.
But also, speculative fiction has a revolutionary potential that is perhaps unique.
Why do I say this? Because imagination — that faculty that expands the human mind to the size of the universe, that makes empathy possible (you have to have some imagination to put yourself in another’s shoes — also allows us to dream. […] While speculative fiction has not yet fully realized its transgressive potential, dominated as it has been by white, male, techno-fantasies — Westerns and the White Man’s Burden in Outer Space — there is still a strong undercurrent of writing that questions and subverts dominant paradigms and persists in asking uncomfortable questions.
But it is also true that when it uses symbol and metaphor in certain ways, speculative fiction is about us as we are, right now. This may be the case even if the story is set on another planet, in another age, and the protagonist is an alien. Because haven’t we all felt alien at some time or another, set apart from the norm due to caste and class, religion and creed, gender and sexual orientation? (201-3)
That is from “A Speculative Manifesto”, which closes the collection, and can be read as positioning sf as a literature centrally concerned with the negotiation of distances: between the self and the world, or the other; between what is and what is possible; between what is here and what is elsewhere. All of these are tensions visible in Singh’s work. (Most of them are refracted such that they become iterations of the distance between the speculative and the real.) Never, aside from the end of “Hunger”, are they explicated so directly; but the sincerity of her stories, the belief they evince in their chosen mode — the irreducibility of Distances — and, ultimately, if sometimes obliquely, their belief in humanity, are qualities that I value. They can perhaps be described as old-fashioned, but after the self-consciousness of much contemporary sf, which is a kind of anxiety, Singh’s stories feel like a relief. The uncertainties they explore do not spring from an uncertainty about their right to exist. They feel like coming home.
Home, indeed, is central to The Woman Who Thought She Was A Planet: fully half of the collection’s ten stories are rooted in domestic experience, and with one exception the rest are still domestic in the sense that they don’t venture beyond Earth. The domestic alienation of “Hunger”, as I’ve noted, opens the book, serving double-duty as a gateway to the distances in the everyday, and a gateway from the real to the speculative. In this company (as opposed to the anthology in which I first read it) I thought the story slightly less impressive, but I still admire its scrupulous detail, and it does both the jobs it is required to do here with aplomb. The collection’s title story (2003) tells a similar tale — of a woman whose science-fictional perspective is ultimately matched by reality — from the point of view of her uncomprehending husband. After Kamala tells Ramnath she has had a revelation, and that she is a planet, he calls a doctor, whose considered verdict is that “women are odd” (44; there’s no doubting where our sympathies lie); and bafflement turns to horror when, at night, he sees “dark stuff … gathered about her mouth, on her chin, like a jelly … not blood but composed of small, moving things” (47). But the alienation here is Ramnath’s, not Kamala’s: she is comfortable with her condition, even telling her husband she wishes he would agree to be colonised and ultimately, in a well-placed moment of comedy, floating away into the sky, the better (it is implied) to care for her new inhabitants. It’s a deft story, if not a terribly penetrating one. Rather better is “Thirst” (2004), whose title and opening — a wife, Susheela, waking up after a vivid dream and finding her surroundings “imbued with remoteness” (88) — seem to indicate another forerunner of “Hunger”. But this iteration of the story is more overtly fantastical, perhaps because it involves more transgression than capitulation. After a buildup that evokes various kinds of longing — for the monsoon; for a local gardener; for self-knowledge — with great intensity, Susheela’s hallucinatory reconciliation with the otherness she discovers within herself is a consummation, perhaps the most visceral release in the book. But as in “Hunger” and the title story, the purpose of the fantastic is to illuminate and accentuate the stresses that result from unequal relationships between men and women.
Other stories examine other inequalities. The BSFA Award-nominated “Delhi” (2004) is a hymn to that city as channeled through the experiences of an itinerant called Aseem, who is prone to seeing “tricks of time” (20) that unpeel his home’s layers. The city — “its ancient stones, the flat-roofed brick houses, threads of clotheslines, wet, bright colours waving like penants, neem tree-lined roads choked with traffic” (19) — is the undoubted star of the show, and Singh is not at all ashamed about using her chosen device as an excuse to provide history lessons. (More and less successfully. “His grandmother,” we are told, “was one of the Hindus who never went back to Old Delhi, not after the madness of Partition in 1947, the Hindu-Muslim riots that killed thousands” . “Hunger” can perhaps be read as directed as Indian readers not familiar with sf, but works as well [at least for me] as a celebration of sf; this similarly feels directed, at Western readers perhaps not familiar with India, but the complete lack of knowledge assumed is surprising: surely everything after “Partition” is unnecessary.) But the story is also an acute rendering of urban alienation. Aseem’s search for a mysterious woman, who he is told is important to his future, is poignant; but what endures from the story is the sense of Aseem’s place within the greater urban organism of which he is only a part. “The Wife” (2003), in which Padma, having made being a wife the cornerstone of her identity and adjusted herself, and even moved to America, for her husband, is now forced to adjust to being abandoned by him, makes a similar point about the importance of human perspective, when her husband insists that “We make realities out of words, Padma, words in our minds and on the page” (172); though it is one of the thinnest stories in the book, and its point is rather more sharply made by “Three Tales From Sky River” (2004). The titular tales are the myths of human cultures many millennia after a galactic diaspora: they are witty pricks to human hubris, and a reminder that how we tell it is not always how it is. (“The Room on the Roof” , which closes the collection, reminds us that sometimes it can be.)
“Conservation Laws” (original to this collection), a story written, we are told, in tribute to the Bengali sf writer Premendra Mitra (1904-1988), is the moment when the collection feels closest to classic Western Golden Age sf. It is a story that is cheerfully blatant about its exposition, with a tenuous framing device that exists to set up a closing gotcha, and is at its heart about how limited human perspective may be. An elderly astronaut recounts a mission to Mars during which he claims that a figure, who may have been the ghost of a first wave of explorers, or may have been an alien, lead him into an underground city, and to a revelation as to the nature of the cosmos: “I saw vast fields of stars and all manner of strange beings. I saw strange and wonderful worlds, and pathways in utter darkness, that led to distant universes” (121). It is perhaps gimmicky, but heartfelt. A more serious exploration of the same ideas comes in “The Tetrahedron” (2005), Singh’s take on the mysterious alien artefact story, in which a student is caught up in the events following the appearance of an enormous tetrahedron — black, obviously — in the middle of a Delhi street (at, we are told, precisely 10:23 IST). Facing the prospect of an arranged marriage, Maya, a student, finds that the arrival of the tetrahedron makes her realise “how useless and insignificant” her life is “against the unending mystery of the universe” (144). She strikes up a conversation with Samir, an astrophysics student helping with the work on the artefact which, far from quenching her thirst, merely reminds her of the other implacable boundaries shaping her life (most particularly, class); and so she takes matters into her own hands. Her escape — at least as imagined by the story’s narrator — is most fulfilling because it appears to involve true partnership, denied elsewhere in her life. Tellingly, those left behind receive a few paragraphs of thought: even as one distance is closed, another opens up.
Probably the most accomplished tale in the collection, and perhaps Singh’s best to date, is “Infinities” (new here). Like “Conservation Laws” and Distances it takes its rigorous shaping metaphors from mathematics: here the Continuum Hypothesis, the statement that there is no infinite set of numbers with order between a lower order of infinity (such as the integers 1, 2, 3, 4…) and the next highest order (such as the real numbers, 1.4, 1.56, 1.659…): you can see, I think, how this fits into Singh’s concern with separations. The protagonist of “Infinities”, Abdul Karim, is a fastidious mathematics master; as with Maya, the domestic detail of his life is contrasted with his desire to see infinity, to escape from “the prosaic ugliness of the world” (57). A long-ish story, split into sections headed by epigraphs from (mostly) Indian (mostly) mathematicians, “Infinities” gradually unwinds the infinite moments that define Karim’s life and obsession — how he threw himself into mathematics after the death of his sister in a riot; how that career was cut off when his father died; how he sees shapes, sometimes, at the edges of his vision; the death of his wife; his friendship with a Hindu writer, Gangadhar — and, in doing so, creates a more nuanced portrait of India, and the tensions that shape it, than is to be found anywhere else in the collection. (For all the specificity of many of her stories, the India-ness that lingers when you close this collection is, as Singh notes in her afterword, “less the man-made political entity than a set of philosophical attitudes toward the world” . And a few brief glimpses in “Delhi” is as close as she ever takes us to the future of her country.) The diverse threads of the tale are beautifully entwined and, as in “Delhi”, as in “Hunger”, the speculative is revealed to be lurking beneath the skin of the present: Karim is granted an epiphany that, heartbreakingly, reveals how far the messy real world is from the seductive abstracts of his chosen field.
In uncovering the speculative within the world we know, “Infinities” is characteristic of The Woman Who Thought She Was A Planet; the most satisfying aspect of this collection is that its stories, even the less successful ones, feel of a piece, like an exploration of a coherent and urgent set of concerns. This is a hallmark of a book worth reading. There is a sense, however, in which the collection is incomplete, and I think it explains why I felt the need to talk about Distances at the start of this review. It is to be expected that there are Other Stories not included: The Woman Who Thought She Was A Planet does not pretend to be comprehensive, and the stories I’m about to name may not even have been written when it was being compiled. But as noted above, between “Hunger” and “A Speculative Manifesto”, the collection presents itself as an argument for the value of sf; and in the collection as constituted, that argument is incomplete. Divya may assert that her treasured pulp novels approach a great truth; Singh may assert the value of stories set on other planets, in other ages, seen through other eyes; but with momentary exceptions, this collection takes place within the frame of the familiar and contemporary. In the best stories, this setting is itself recontextualised by a shift in perspective of one kind or another; but sometimes Singh doesn’t do more than simply articulate that there is a distance that needs to be considered. What’s missing, in fact, is precisely a story like Distances, that steps away from the immediate familiarity of most of the stories in this collection and yet clearly addresses the same concerns; or perhaps a story like Singh’s other novella, Of Love and Other Monsters (2007), with its alien protagonist and arguably more radical perspective shift. Those are the stories of Singh’s that most fully use the codes of sf, that — in concert with the work collected here — make her case; and, for all the other pleasures in The Woman Who Thought She Was A Planet, I missed them.
“Listen closely”, one of Tokyo Cancelled‘s nameless narrators urges us, “for there are some moments when another’s life breaks the rules of what is familiar” (227). They go on to describe, in great detail, the moment when one character, Natalia, a merchant, falls in love at first sight with another character, Riad, a sailor. The setting is a coffee shop in contemporary Istanbul. Later in the story, when Natalia and Riad have been separated by circumstance — the ship on which Riad travels has been impounded in Marseille due to “financial irregularities”, and he has no way of getting a message to Natalia to let her know why he has not returned — there comes “another moment to which we must devote an unnatural degree of attention” (243). In the middle of the night, without waking up, Riad is wracked by great heaving coughs; and gradually, still without waking up, he expels a live sea-bird onto the pillow beside him. The linking of the two scenes is telling: they are alike, is the implication, in that both are impossible magics, devices of stories, not features of real-life. It’s a self-critical association that makes the introduction of that bird one of the more striking deployments of the fantastic in Tokyo Cancelled; but in other ways, it is typical. In particular, it is described with calm authority, and integrated into the narrative with confidence — leading, in this case, to the tantalizing possibility of a happy-ever-after for the star-crossed lovers.
Oh, but I enjoyed this book, picked up on a whim earlier this year. The most obvious comparison to draw is probably with David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten (1999) – another sparklingly multifaceted debut collection, with just enough connective tissue to be disguised as a novel; another book that sets itself a globe-encapsulating mandate, carried through with clarity and readability – with the difference that Rana Dasgupta’s book is rather more full-throated in its use of the fantastic. So I was a little surprised, digging around, to find that it has been little discussed within the sf field; indeed, the only review I’m aware of is that by John Clute in Interzone 198 (May 2005). But put it this way: Tokyo Cancelled is not short of moments that break the rules of what is familiar. And, the narrator of “The Rendezvous in Istanbul” insists, such moments “cannot be followed with the humdrum attention we usually grant to the world” (227); although what really makes Dasgupta’s stories remarkable is not that they demand our attention so directly, but that they make us willing to give it so freely.
A brief prologue, designated “Arrivals”, sets the stage: unable to reach its destination due to a snowstorm, a 747 is diverted to an airport in “the Middle of Nowhere” (1), from where most of the passengers are shuttled off to hotels for the night. Thirteen are left behind, all nameless and described in the barest of sketches. To pass the time they decide to tell each other stories. “Everyone knows stories!” one says. Simple geography, it seems, is another way of breaking the rules of what is familiar: one traveller enthuses that “You just have to tell me how you travel to work every morning in the place where you live and for me it’s a fable! it’s a legend!” Followed by: “Sorry I am tired and a little stressed and this is not how I usually talk but I think when you are together like this then stories are what is required” (7). If “fable”, and the style and tone that word conjures, is more relevant to the rest of the book than more naturalistic, if excitable, run-on sentences, then that, we understand, is part of the conceit.
It quickly becomes clear that Dasgupta knows what he’s doing: the first story, “The Tailor”, plays with expectations of fables in a productive fashion. Much in the manner of Daniel Abraham’s “The Cambist and Lord Iron”, it is a non-fantastic tale told within a structure familiar from fantasy. A playboy prince, “Not so long ago, in one of those small, carefree lands that used to be so common but which now, alas, are hardly to be found” (9; that “alas” is ironic, I think), goes for a drive in the country, and commissions a fine coat from a village tailor. The tailor works on the coat for several months, going heavily into debt to complete it, but when he travels to the prince’s palace to deliver the completed product, he is rebuffed: he has no paperwork, no purchase order to prove his legitimacy. Bankrupt, unable to find an alternate buyer rich enough to afford the coat, he is forced to become a beggar. There are several more twists from here, adroitly done, but the ultimate outcome is never in doubt: the tailor proves his character and his honesty by telling a story for the king, a story that, we are told, possesses “all the thirteen levels of meaning prized in the greatest of our writings” (20). At the end of the tale, a style and a tone have been established that will, with some variation — though not, of course, as much as you’d expect if thirteen real people were really telling stories — see us through the rest of the book, and around the world from London to Delhi to Buenos Aires to New York. And a marker has been put down: stories are not weightless.
That frame unavoidably colours the other stories. “The Billionaire’s Sleep”, for example, told in much the same voice as “The Tailor”, feels chaotically organic in the best sense: the story of a rich Delhi businessman who has everything but sleep, which before you quite realise what’s happening becomes a story about time and music and Rapunzel, it is imbued with an invigorating thinking-out-loud, never-look-back creativity. It presents as the most extravagant story in the book. Yet step back, and it is very much of a piece with its counterparts. There is a deliberate (I think) mismatch between the seemingly innocent style, which implicitly (and in “The Tailor”, explicitly) harks backs to times and places that no longer exist (and may never have done), and the content, which is often thrustingly contemporary. “The Billionaire’s Sleep” features cloning, ruminations on the dislocating effect of jet-lag, and the economics of telephone call centers; many of the other stories play on the same tension, and the net result, which the various eruptions of the fantastic into the book reinforce, is a kind of flattening of distinctiveness. To be clear, “The Billionaire’s Sleep” is set in Delhi, there are markers of Delhi-ness — place names, details of cuisine or custom — scattered through the text; but this Delhi feels much the same as many, perhaps most, of the other locations in the book. I take this muted polyphony to be deliberate, a comment on contemporary global experience (as perceived by those, like our narrators, who can afford at least semi-frequent air travel, at any rate). It flirts with blandness, if you like, as a way of provoking a reader to think about what is similar and different about any given pair of stories; a contrasting strategy could be found in Nam Le’s The Boat (2008), which attempts to reassure its readers that different people in different cultures are always distinct, and in doing so (ironically) flirts with cliche.
The most obvious sort of difference on display in Tokyo Cancelled is geographic: Dasgupta’s stories range over Eurasia, Africa and the Americas, though with a slight bias to the first of those. One kind of similarity can be seen as a deliberate counterpoint to the spread of settings: the protagonists are predominantly traders, or entrepreneurs — individuals for whom engagement with the machinery of commerce is a part of self-identification, in other words — who tend to be in some sense displaced from their home. Another kind of similarity is harder to rationalize — these stories are overwhelmingly about heterosexual men – and somewhat limits Tokyo Cancelled‘s claim to capture contemporary experience in any complete fashion, except insofar as the class of person it depicts is perhaps still more often male than female. It is nevertheless depressing to recognise how often womens’ role in these stories is shaped by sex; when Natalia meets Riad in Istanbul, for instance, times are hard and she’s allowing herself to be kept as a mistress. In “The Bargain in the Dungeon”, Katya, an unwanted child dumped on a train by her rural Polish parents, finds success in Warsaw working as a seamstress whose products, particularly bedcovers, have psychic and physiological healing powers. After a time, she is challenged by a mysterious woman to put her power to greater use. “It is time to leave behind your bedspreads,” she is told, “and apply yourself more deeply to the drama of the human soul […] You must wake people up, with new pain and uncanny pleasure, with a world they do not know, though it is all around them” (307). This means going to work in the titular dungeon, a sort of magical S&M brothel in which Katya uses her powers to tap into the fantasies of her clients, and develops a fascination with one of them that leads, as you might expect, to nothing good.
The story is one of the less impressive of Tokyo Cancelled‘s offerings; it feels perfunctory. But at least Katya is nominally in control of her destiny. In “The Doll”, a Tokyo salaryman, Yukio, persuades his partner’s wealthy father to finance his business plan — he wants to own something that generates wealth. The stress involved in getting his company off the ground leads Yukio to neglect his partner; and as a way of coping with that stress, he constructs a female doll from creepily authentic artificial limbs, and gives her a computer for a brain, at which point she promptly becomes self aware. The doll is blind and immobile, but online, and becomes an object of uncanny attraction both for Yukio and for any other man who comes into contact with her, exerting a succubus-like level of control over their thoughts. There are certainly aspects of the story that are well done — the slow slide from Yukio’s initial, straightforward, honest goodness to dangerous and distasteful obsession, for a start — and it is, arguably, Tokyo Cancelled‘s central story. It’s the one that takes place in Tokyo, after all; the one that most cleanly conflates the technological and the fantastical; the one that most explicitly showcases the distorting effect of work on modern life. (And trivially, it’s located pretty much half-way through the book.) But its one-sidedness, the uncomfortable sense that it’s deploying a cliche about Japan (fetishization of technology) to no particularly original effect, and an ending that unconvincingly gestures towards consolation, means that it is, in the end, a failure.
I need now, I think, to give a sense of why I found the book as a whole so intoxicatingly distinctive, in spite of the above flaws. Two stories in particular stand out. The themes of “The Memory Editor” — that predictions never come true in the way that you want or try to anticipate; that it is worth striving to be content inside your own skin, and mind — are familiar, but the execution is mesmerizing. Set in London, the story’s protagonist is Thomas, the third and youngest son of a wealthy banker. Early in the story, he meets an old woman who claims to have been born with all her memories and, thus, to be able to remember the future; and she tells him that she knows that Thomas’ wealth will one day make his father seem poor. This makes Thomas cocky, and leads him into a disagreement with his father, as the result of which he is banished from the family home. Shortly thereafter he is recruited to work as a researcher for Memory Mine, the owners of which are convinced that “average memory horizons” are on the verge of shrinking to zero and who, as both a precaution against such mass amnesia and a calculated cornering of a new market opportunity, are collating citizens’ personal information — from the public domain, from other corporations, and from government surveillance projects — into packages, narratives, that can be sold back to those who forget. And lo, it does come to pass, first in a dream:
Suddenly he looked up; and through the window he saw a beautiful thing floating slowly down to the ground. It was magical and rare and he felt a deep desire to own it. He ran down the stairs and out into the garden, and there it was floating above him: a delicate thing, spiralling exquisitely and glinting in the sun. He stood under it and reached out his hands. Spinning like a slow-motion sycamore seed, it fell softly and weightlessly into his palms. It looked as if it was of silver, beaten till it was a few atoms thick and sculpted into the most intricate form: a kind of never-ending staircase that wound round on itself into a snail shell of coils within coils. He looked at it in rapture. How could such a beautiful object have fallen from the sky! He was full of joy at this thing that had chosen him and fallen so tamely into his hand. (43)
And then more prosaically. Memory Mine makes a killing. All of this is told with emotional directness, and an irresistable clear certitude that comes in part from a constant expansion, a raising of the stakes of the story until — for example — we can be told, offhand, that the coming of mass amnesia triggers an economic collapse, and that “the two blights swept entire continents hand in hand” (45). And yet Dasgupta is able to bring his story back to Thomas, his father, that old woman, and a satisfying resolution, without seeming to strain at all.
“The Changeling” similarly marries sweep and intimacy, to perhaps even more penetrating effect. “Parisians,” we are told, early in the story, “have traditionally treated their changeling population with resentment” (257); and we’re off to the races, in an immersive alternate history in which changelings — immortal creatures who adopt human form for a short period of time, and are mortal while they do — are indeed an accepted fact of life, although not a welcome one. A little while ago, it was determined that “neither liberty, equality, nor fraternity could be extended to creatures that had no long-term loyalty to the nation or even to the species” (259); changelings in high places are driven out, and the rest live in secret. The protagonist, Bernard, is one such, working as an investment banker, and happily married until the day his wife discovers the truth of him. Cast out, he wanders the city, and ends up helping an injured Moroccan man, Fareed, to a room in a hotel. The scenes that follow — a changeling afraid of mortality confronted with a dying mortal man — are extremely well-judged, but they are just the start. As in “The Memory Editor” and “The Billionaire’s Sleep”, the story contorts and ultimately opens out in exhilarating fashion, transmuting and, it seems, subsuming the story of a Parisian changeling without ever losing sight of the fact that it is, at heart, a meaningful story about learning how to die well.
Stories like these are all the more satisfying because, in this book, they retain the element of surprise: Dasgupta never loses sight of the distinction between the fantastic and the merely extraordinary, and indeed plays with that distinction quite effectively. In a story like “The Lucky Ear Cleaner”, for example, which could begin and end with its title, it’s hard to believe that there is no charm hanging over the protagonist, hard to realise that sometimes luck is just in the eye of the observer; while at the other end of the scale, it’s hard to believe that a story like “The House of the Frankfurt Mapmaker” has become as untethered from reality as it has, that it’s not going to come in to land in the way that its predecessors have, but will instead head off for the deepest part of the woods, further up and further in. (It’s a story about making sense of the world that becomes a story about a world that refuses to make sense.) The story-night frame helps with this project, adding an immediate level of dislocation, separating us from home and preparing us for something different. Similarly, the displacements experienced by the book’s protagonists — from their past, as in “the Memory Editor”, or from other people in “The Doll” and “The Rendezvous in Istanbul”, or from home in many of the stories, such as “The Tailor” and “The Bargain in the Dungeon” and “The Lucky Ear Cleaner” — are not just story-generating devices, but are also used to generate a baseline of estrangement from which the fantastic can readily emerge (or not). The end result is a vision of the world in which wonder and modernity are intimately coupled, and fully incorporated into the texture of (an incomplete selection of) human experience. Familiar truths are newly revealed. It’s worth listening to.
On the one hand, coming to a novel this late, when numerous people have pretty much reviewed the heck out of it, makes life easier, in that I can point at what they’ve said; on the other hand, in the case of House of Suns, there isn’t much left that hasn’t been said, which you can take as an indication of the kind of genial, transparent book it is. (This may seem ironic, given the evident length this post has grown to, but really, it’s all just my variations on themes already identified.) In particular, Adam Roberts’ review says almost everything I would, give or take some differences in emphasis, and his summary judgment gets to the heart of the matter for me:
if it is your contention that the face of SF 2009 is Asimov’s mutton-chops and meaty NHS-style-but-presumably-not-actually-NHS-what-with-him-being-American glasses, and if you’re not bothered by bourgeois heteronormativity, then this is most definitely the book for you.
On the Asimov thing: Jonathan Wright also notes an Asimovian flavour to the proceedings and, though it doesn’t seem to have been deliberate, it was there for me, too. And I don’t necessarily mean that as a bad thing; specifically, there were times when I felt that House of Suns was doing salvage work on some of the more satisfactory aspects of Asimov’s late novels — even more specifically, Foundation and Earth (1986). The future history in House of Suns features a galaxy in which the only forms of intelligence are human or human-derived; the central characters are members of an organization that sets itself above or beyond the immediate, squabbling concerns of planetary and interplanetary civilizations; and there are some radically divergent posthumans wandering around, but the story’s ultimate focus is the relationship between humanity and robots, known here as Machine People. One of the main characters, Hesperus, is a Machine Person with some similarities of attitude to some incarnations of R. Daneel Olivaw (updated for the noughties, of course). If you squint a little, I think you can even see a deformed magus-figure shadow of Hari Seldon behind Abigail Gentian, the woman who establishes the primary clone Line with which House of Suns concerns itself, in the way she establishes rules, a preservational Plan that her “shatterlings” follow down the deep well of centuries.
Incongruously enough, my other touchstone while reading this book was Russell T. Davies’ Doctor Who. Dan Hartland mentions Star Wars as a reference point, which captures the curious innocence of House of Suns; there is less New in this Space Opera than in the others that I have read by Reynolds. (Also, one of the Machine People looks like a slightly more sculpted C-3PO.) But Who has some of that innocence to it as well, and for all its inanities, I think it’s a better match, and not just because one of Reynolds’ posthuman races are called the Sycorax. First, what Reynolds brings to Asimov’s framework is colour, gleeful splashes of the stuff. In a science fiction novel like this, which essentially takes an infinite empty void as its backdrop, there is particular skill needed in choosing which bits to sketch in; Reynolds makes good choices, and goes about his sketchings with gusto. So although a fair portion of the book takes place in deep space, depicting voyages or chases (Reynolds does like his chase sequences, particularly interstellar ones that go on for tens of pages; fortunately the one that closes this book is rather better paced than the one that closed Century Rain ), there are marvels at every waystation, from giants with faces to dwarf even the Face of Bo, to sleeping beauty awaking in a techno-forest of gold and silver cables. Sometimes these settings are handled off-handedly:
Ashtega’s world — shown beneath the map of the galaxy — was an outrageous confection of a planet: a striped marshmallow giant with a necklace of sugary rings, combed and braided by the resonant forces of a dozen glazed and candied moons. We were crossing the ecliptic, so the rings were slowly tilting to a steeper angle, revealing more of their loveliness. There was no doubt that it was one of the most glorious worlds I had ever seen, and I had seen quite a few.
But we had not come here to gawp at a picturesque planet, even if it was a spectacular exemplar of the form. (21)
Sometimes more attention is lavished on them:
Four stiff black fingers reached from the dunes, each an obelisk of the Benevolence, each tilted halfway to the horizontal. The shortest of the fingers must have been four or five kilometres from end to end, while the longest — one of the two middle digits — was at least eight. From a distance, caught in the sparkling light of the lowering sun, it was as if the fingers were encrusted with jewellery of blue stones and precious metal. But the jewellery was Ymir: the Witnesses had constructed their city on the surface of the fingers, with the thickest concentrations of structures around the middle portions of the fingers. A dense mass of azure towers thrust from the sloped foundations of the Benevolence relics, fluted and spiralled like the shells of fabulous sea creatures, agleam with gold and silver gilding. A haze of delicate latticed walkways and bridges wrapped itself around the twoers of Ymir, with the longer spans reaching from finger to finger. The air spangled with the bright moving motes of vehicles and airborne people, buzzing from tower to tower. (161)
This is not elegant writing; it is even a bit laboured (“… on the surface of the fingers … around the middle portions of the fingers”). But it’s trying to get us excited about something extraordinary. So my second comparison point is that, as in Doctor Who, the characters are not immune to wonder; dialogue like this, for example, would I think be entirely at home in that show:
“Sand grains start sliding downhill, just beneath the outer membrane of the dunes […] The membrane vibrates even more strongly and sets up excitations in the surrounding airmass. You get something like music.” After a pause, he said, “Wonderful, isn’t it?”
“Wonderful and a little spooky.”
“Like all the best things in the universe.” (172-3)
Comparisons with Who can only go so far, though. There is, for example, that whitebread heteronormativity that Adam mentions — not something Who can be accused of too strongly these days — which is for most of the novel a nagging annoyance, and a couple of times something more than that. [EDIT: Although there are also the orgies during the thousand nights, which suggest a certain degree of flexibility …] The projection of particular standards of beauty got me, too: the descriptions of how beautiful the Machine People were, in particular, felt very culturally specific, and while I’m fine with the shatterlings having retained the standards of beauty they started with (see below), I’m a little disappointed that the standards of beauty in Abigail’s time, which is already some way in the future from us, apparently hadn’t changed at all. What most irritated me, however, was the abuse of bioscience. Reynolds is scrupulous about stressing the physical constraints of the universe — say, the speed of light — yet is, bizarrely, happy to construct a scenario in which a female progenitor gives rise to a clone line containing both male and female individuals. If there’s a reason for this beyond Reynolds wanting to include more male characters, I missed it. If there’s an explanation given for how this miracle is achieved, I missed that, too; [EDIT: It could be, for example, that Abigail has a rare variant of Klinefelter’s syndrome, though I don’t recall such an explanation being offered in the text (though see discussion later regarding the flashbacks) and so] I’m left imagining that they imported a Y chromosome from somewhere else, which makes any male shatterlings less than an exact clone. (Indeed, I found myself defaulting to imagining the shatterlings as female until otherwise specified for just this reason, which led to a couple of interestingly disconcerting moments.)
A more global difference to Who (but a similarity with Asimov) is that Reynolds is in earnest. House of Suns never indulges in the sort of ironic nudging that Who — or a writer like, say, Ken MacLeod, in a novel like Newton’s Wake; or Banks in any Culture novel– so often enjoys. Dan Hartland put it this way: “Reynolds manages space opera that does not read like farce.” I will go a little further: one of the novel’s strengths is that Reynolds manages to keep a straight face almost all of the time. There are no knowing winks. There is some — not that much — snappy dialogue, but when Reynolds has one of his characters report that “The next three minutes passed like an age as I watched Hesperus streak forward and then slam past Mezereon’s position, missing her by barely half a million kilometres” (123), the deadpan delivery is essential, because on the face of it that “barely” looks absurd.
It’s this earnestness, also, that makes it possible to believe in characters driven by the search for wonder: a perhaps childish impulse (see Who, again; and Charlie Anders touches on this in a piece at io9 about childhood and sense of wonder that I’ve only just seen; and also see below) but one that, as the ending makes clear, is a function of civilizational youth as much as individual organism youth. The shatterlings are flung outwards by her at the close of humanity’s dawn age, explicitly in search of knowledge and experience. In each Line, each of a thousand clones is given a ship; each is then set on a different course, with instructions to rendezvous after completing a “circuit”, a trip around the galaxy. At the rendezvous they share experiences; then they do it all again. For the Gentian Line, these circuits now take two hundred thousand years each (the shatterlings spend much of their time in suspended animation, “tunnelling through history” as one character puts it), during which time they may interact with civilizations caught in “the endless, grinding procession of empires” (15) that the shatterlings call “turnover”. It is, at any rate, no surprise that Abigail’s rules have, by the time of the novel, some thirty-odd circuits down the line, hardened into commandments; no real surprise that maintenance of continuity is one of the book’s main themes.
Here is where I diverge slightly from most other reviewers of this book. House of Suns is narrated by two Shatterlings of Abigail’s line, Campion and Purslane, in alternating chapters. (At the start of each of the book’s eight sections, there is also a flashback chapter to Abigail’s youth; but all the Shatterlings share these memories — both Campion and Purslane refer to events that take place in the flashbacks as theirs, as happening to “me” — so there is no way of knowing which is narrating them.) And they do sound frightfully similar. As Adam puts it:
all the characters are pretty much the same character. Of course most of the characters in this novel are the same character, or clones thereof, but I don’t think this excuses it; they’re supposed to have been living separate lives, and developing separate personalities, for millions of years after all. They haven’t done so, though, on the evidence of this text. I was perhaps a quarter of the way into the book before I twigged that the narrative p.o.v. was alternating between the two twin-like deuteragonists (Purslane and Campion), and that’s not a good thing.
Or Paul Kincaid:
House of Suns is a novel with three narrative voices: Campion and Purslane narrate alternative chapters, while each section of the novel is introduced with a passage narrated by Abigail Gentian, the founder of the line (I will come back to her shortly). This is a technique that has a number of problems. For a start, Campion and Purslane spend most of the novel together, so that until the climax the alternating chapters don’t actually show us anything different. More seriously, the voices of male Campion and female Purslane are indistinguishable, and both are indistinguishable from Abigail Gentian. Is Reynolds making the subtle point that, as clones, these are all the same person anyway? If so, he actually does nothing with the idea, and the point could have been made as well without the exchange of narrative duties. I suspect, rather, that Reynolds has got hooked on multiple narrative strands, a technique he has used repeatedly before, and has followed it regardless of the fact that in some instances, as here, it can be more harmful than helpful to the novel.
I actually think the technical issue Paul identifies, that for most of the novel Campion and Purslane are sharing the same experiences (and thus that it’s sometimes only possible to tell which is narrating a chapter when they refer to the other), does the more harm. On the other hand, I can make an argument that the similarity of identity is deliberate; or at least, I feel I can construct a satisfactory rationale for embracing the confusion it causes based on what’s in the text, which is actually the more important thing. I’ve already mentioned that both Campion and Purslane claim Abigail’s memories as their own, but it’s also the case that they share their own memories with each other, and share memories with other shatterlings; indeed, at one point Purslane misremembers something that happened to Campion as having happened to her. So I don’t think they have been developing separate personalities for millions of years — I think, in fact, that they have been developing parallel personalities for millions of years. The point is repeatedly made that the differences between members of the Line are much less significant than the similarities, and I don’t think that is just clan loyalty.
At the time we meet them, just before a reunion, after hundreds of thousands of years apart, the shatterlings are as divergent as they will ever be; the point of the thousand-nights reunion is to celebrate sharing that experience. Before it can take place, the assembled Gentian Line is ambushed, and most of them are killed, so; yet they are still remarkably similar individuals. (One shatterling’s taste for torture, for instance, is merely out at the end of the bell curve compared to the rest of them; even those who object to the torture most are prepared to embrace its use in other circumstances, later in the book.) The differences between Line members — in particular, between Campion and Purslane, the former pruning regularly, the latter sentimentally hoarding — seem to arise in large part from differing choices about which memories to delete than they do from differing individual experiences. It is the presumed similarity between the shatterlings that makes Campion and Purslane’s romantic liaison anathema to the rest of their Line — it is rather worse than incest — and it is the need to maintain continuity that makes Campion’s decision to delete his “strand” (the archive of his memories) a transgression beyond the pale. Both actions threaten the stability of the Line.
This obsession with continuity has, I think you can argue, resulted in a kind of arrested development on the part of the shatterlings; it is emphasized more than once that near-baseline humans such as they are not perceptually suited to experiencing long stretches of “raw time”, and that their pride in their longevity is, in important ways, a delusion. But it’s interesting to think of them specifically as children, of a kind, who have not yet become full individuals; as Purslane says, shortly after the ambush, “now we are growing up” (99). You can even gloss the overall shape of the novel as being about humans learning exactly how young they really are in comparison to the depth and breadth of the universe. Coming to terms with being, in a sense, spoiled children. The Gentian Line is incredibly conscious of its fragility; for some of them, the worst consequence of the ambush is not that eight-hundred-odd unique individuals have been killed, but that as a consequence the Line may cease to exist. They take pride in their status as one of humanity’s strategies to maintain continuity over deep time, one way to rise above the churn of turnover (they would probably say, the most human such strategy). As Ludmilla Marcellin, creator of the first line, puts it:
“If [Faster-than-light travel] is developed, it will clearly be of significance to us. We’ll embrace it wholeheartedly, have no fear. But it won’t change the nature of what we are, or the reason for our existence. The galaxy will still be too big, too complex, for any one person to apprehend. Shattering, turning yourself into multiple points of view, will still be the only way to eat that cake.” (225)
If Ludmilla Marcellin’s shatterlings cease to be her, the whole point of the endeavour is lost; and as with Ludmilla, so with Abigail.
This doesn’t do away with the problems Paul and others have noted; but I think it suggests a way to reframe them as part of a more satisfactory reading of the novel. (I actually think more points of view — probably other shatterlings, though someone outside the Line would also work — would make the point more clearly.) Similarly, I think the flashbacks work better than many have given them credit for. They are there, in part, to emphasize the shared lineage of the line, but their real trick is that they turn out to be false memories, indicators of both a cargo of damage that must be common to all Gentian shatterlings, and of displacement of a specific, repressed act that stains the history of the Line. And perhaps more than that. Note that in the memories Abigail’s development is arrested in childhood for thirty years; this could perhaps represent a displaced consciousness of the thirty circuits the Gentian Line undergo before the ambush, before they start growing up; or perhaps is just a parallel to note as something that shapes the Line. [Equally, is the fact that Abigail’s guardian is “Madam Klinefelter” significant, a nod to Abigail’s genetic heritage? It’s rather a coincidence if it’s not.]
Certainly, though, my qualms didn’t bother me much during the actual reading. Back to Adam:
Reynolds is rather disgustingly skilled, actually, when it comes to plotting—not only structuring his story so that its build-ups and pay-offs are all in the right places, but pacing the whole, drawing the reader along, with only the occasional longeur. The first 200 pages hurtle by; the next hundred tread narrative water a little, but things pick up again around 300 and the reader is propelled nicely down the flume to the end-pool.
This is, clearly, not enough to make a truly good novel; but it’s not nothing, either. House of Suns is by some way the most satisfying of Reynolds’ novels that I’ve read (i.e. of those since Century Rain). I did sometimes feel that it became a touch genteel, a touch domesticating; although again, a concern with rules, the value of them as well as their limitations, whether set by Abigail or the universe, is a concern of the novel, and to manifest this as a kind of formality makes a certain amount of sense. Reynolds also falls foul of a personal bugbear, in that he fails to explain how or why his first-person narrators are relating their story. But as I was reading, only rarely were the problems severe enough to pull me up short; for the most part I barely paused for breath. I blasted through House of Suns in a little over a day and, while I wouldn’t give it this year’s Clarke Award, and am not even really sure it belongs on the shortlist, I don’t begrudge the time I spent with it one jot. A guilty pleasure is still a pleasure.