Monday, October 31, 2005

Remaking the God of Love

I'm not sure what to make of Justina Robson's latest novel, Living Next Door to the God of Love . It is undeniably a fantastic read and stylish. It is undoubtedly true. The problem for me was that I needed to be around a quarter the way through before the universe fell into place for me. Perhaps it is just me.

It is a profoundly human novel in its intent, a delicate dissection of human relationships at its core. In the city of Metropolis you can be who you want to be. Join the carnivalesque parade of characters and redefinitions of the self. Lose yourself in the city. Its a familiar theme really to sf and (arguably) strains of literature (Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities and M. John Harrison's writing) and it speaks of an urban truth, grounding the reader in the grittiness of life whilst promising and, to a certain extent, delivering the promises made like pillow kisses.

This speaks to our need to identify ourselves in relation to other beings and genres. We rarely allow ourselves to just be and exist. Rather it is comforting to place ourselves into the hierarchy and so when the Splinter arrives, the Unity (the post-human consciousness which translates people into its way of existing/thing/being) is threatened as it allows difference and very human emotions - love, lust, desire. Robson allows politics in since the Splinter cannot recognise its own frailties and weaknesses. It is splintering itself, creating shards around the universe. Robson joins in the conversation of hard sf's desire for uplift, that a singularity will give humans a better life. Unity cannot deal with the Splinter, or even converse with it, because it is allows for human emotion. Indeed, it thrives on it.

Francine is out to find love but wanders into the world of fairytale. Not the Disney you'll immediately know but the maerchen. Bluebeard is indeed dangerous in this world as are the vampires. (Robson updates the nineteenth century mode of the fantastic into the twenty first century with aplomb.) Jalaeka is busy remaking himself as well. He's been many things in his time but is sure to be more as he searches for his own path to Enlightenment.

Part of the book, I believe is about language. One of the things about sf is that it hasn't really explored how other beings, mainly animals, communicate and the consequence this has for language. Consider bees and their dances which communicate the location of the honey or ants and their various chemical languages. None of these are experienced in the same way as speach and this underlies part of Unity's problem with the Splinter. It cannot find a way to converse with it since it has no common ground on which it can experience communication. Unity needs to change, or adapt, at a fundamental level and this is what the Splinter offers. The book has a joyous way of suddenly stopping the narrative to allow the reader fully into the experiental world of its characters and this really brings them alive.

Justina is a great stylist, just look at Natural History - to my mind a wonderfully succinct novel which told a strong story and read very well. I found the easiest way into the book was to access it through the various character's names and then work from that point upwards. Perhaps in this new novel she was trying too hard on how to say it and somewhere the story got slightly lost.

It needs a reread and no doubt I'll rediscover stuff in it and rethink my experiences. I'm still of the opinion that Justina is one of our finest stylists, in any genre, but this one may not be her best.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

An incurably odd world

We meet Mosca, the heroine of Fly by Night, when she kicks a dove. Her criminal career is then spent breaking into the local jail and stealing the keys to release a prisoner in the stocks, named Eponymous Clent.

It is an enjoyable start to Francis Hardinge's debut novel. [An aside: I'll get this over and done with now – if you care about children's fantasy, read this book and remember her name.] Mosca and Clent leave the small village where her father has hidden for many years, afraid of
the authorities since he is considered a heretic, though how much so remains to be seen. She has not had a sheltered life and is a thoroughly morally dubious character in the best tradition – a pragmatist. Her father taught her how to read and opened her life to a world of ideas
and discussion.

The world of Fly by Night is late seventeenth and early eighteenth century, one realised with historical accuracy and suitable archaicisms but with cunning artifice and invention. It breathes and comes alive as the two characters come together and fully explore the byways, highways
and waterways as well as the floating coffee houses. Rather than dump us into a secondary world and expect the reader to adjust or be thrown out, Hardinge allows the reader in gently. It could be taken (barring invention) as a historical novel. It works admirably well on this level
but it also has a touch of the John Masefields about it. The world is, in her words, "incurably odd" and it is this that tells us it is fantasy. The real world functions but it has areas of thinning and Hardinge plays with this to throw in delicate oddities and words which tell us that we are somewhere else. We can breathe the subtle aroma of coffee beans and beer, whilst avoiding the ordure.

As the reader comes to know this world, so does Mosca. She is from a small village but she learns the ways of the world with its courtesies and manners, an equally challenging battleground, especially for a neophyte. More importantly, she moves from being a recipient of stories, a passive player to taking control of the way her story is told. She becomes aware of the very grammar and language and decides to control it. It is an organic world and one that we can either grow with or not. One of the threads of the book is laid bare when she comments upon the
Bird Catcher's use of language and how they ensnare the reader within the beauty of the language.Yet language is also a problem. The Stationer's Guild and the Locksmiths are tied up in a battle to control the rebel press and thus the dissemination of ideas to the population. Mosca's father, Quilliam, was one of the free thinkers who are being repressed by the state and so these ideas come out via pamphleteering.

Instead of falling for her own pamphleteering, Hardinge shows how even the Dissenters are victims of their own charade, subtly moving within their own propaganda. It becomes apparent that Quilliam was an atheist, an even more dangerous form of thought than Dissension. Many of his followers are unaware of this since he covered it by propagandizing for the Bird Catchers. Does Mosca crumble under these startling truths? Well no, she's too pragmatic but it makes her aware of the true nature of the rebellion and Interregnum. This helps her with her court dealings as she takes all the characters in her stride and learns about their true strengths and weaknesses.

There is so much in this book and I hope to be rereading it very shortly at some leisure. Suffice it to say, its one of my finds of the year and I am keen to read more by her in the future. It is a salutary reminder that children's fantasy is not all about magic and secondary worlds. Fantasy needs to be more of the imagination and discussion of the ideas rather than propaganda and this is what Fly by Night does so well. It explores the methods of spreading ideas and it gives them room to exist within the pages of a novel, encouraging the reader to discover and learn their own language of the world . It may be incurably odd but it is necessary and vital.

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