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Of Wind and Sand
Sylvie Bérard
Edge, 312 pages

Of Wind and Sand
Sylvie Bérard
Sylvie Bérard was born in Montreal in 1965. Attaining a Doctorate in Semiology, she has been teaching Quebec Literature for a few years at Trent University in Peterborough (Ontario). She is a Lettres Quéeacute;béeacute;coises (literary magazine) contributor and a member of the editorial collective of the journal XYZ. Sylvie Bérard has published short stories in numerous anthologies and literary journals -- Moebius, ASFFQ, Solaris, and Tesseract -- as well as written many articles on science fiction. The French version, Terre des Autres, won the Grand Prix in 2005 science-fiction and fantasy in Quebec, the Boréeacute;al Award in 2005 and the Radio-Canada Readers Award or, in French, Prix des Lecuteurs de Radio-Canada, in 2006.

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Past Feature Reviews
A review by Paul Kincaid

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The premise of Sylvie Bérard's novel is that a human ship has landed on the planet they christen Mars II. Ostensibly the ship is there for repair, though we never learn how it was damaged, we see no attempt to effect repairs, and later the ship will take off with no apparent problem. Instead, the humans decide to settle, and immediately embark upon a war with the race of intelligent lizards, the darztls, who inhabit the planet they call Siexlth.

It's a hoary old plot, and I don't believe a word of it.

In part I don't believe it because I'm told not to believe it. There are six sentences in the very first paragraph of the novel. Three of them tell us that the unnamed narrator is old. Three of them tell us that the narrator's memory isn't what it used to be. Three of them tell us that the images get mixed up. The paragraph tells us nothing else, and it's not the narrator forgetting that she's already told us her memory is faulty, nothing as clever as that. No, it is simply being highly emphatic about these particular details. If you don't come out of this paragraph convinced that we've just been told this is an unreliable narrative, then you simply haven't been paying attention to literature for the last 100 years or so.

Except that the narrator, whoever she might be, disappears after the Prologue, and the novel continues in a series of third person chapters or first person accounts by people who are clearly not the narrator of the prologue. Although this is partly guesswork, since Bérard is not overly fond of giving names to her human characters. Why, you might wonder, is so much emphasis being placed on the unreliability of the narrator, if there isn't going to be a narrator?

Which brings us to the main reason I don't believe a word of this novel: I don't think the author believes it either. In the second paragraph, in practically the first analogy Bérard employs in the novel, she talks of something being like a wolf marking its territory. Bérard is Canadian, her novel is published in Canada, I am sure this simile resonates with both author and audience. But it doesn't work for a narrator who is the first child born on Mars II, a desert world where she could never have seen a wolf, a world, as she tells us shortly afterwards, 'made for darztls' (1).

This is a failure of imagination, a refusal to see the world through the eyes of the character, to fully inhabit the world she has created. Even if this false analogy in the second paragraph of the novel were not repeated elsewhere (and it is, there are several occasions when choice of words or images does not ring true, including references to bicycles and, on pages 95/6, we learn that skydiving is part of human basic training on Mars II even though there is no indication anywhere that they have any sort of flying machine, which would surely have been deployed in a war against ground-based lizards), it would be enough to undermine our trust in the imagination of the author.

I don't suppose this would really bother the author that much, since I think she regards this novel more as allegory than as fully-inhabited science fiction. These are not characters behaving naturalistically in a well-developed world, but actors performing ritualistically in front of a lightly sketched backcloth.

Moreover, these ritual performances are repetitious, following the same pattern again and again and again. I have no idea if any of the contents of this novel have been published separately as stories. There is nothing to indicate this, but they could well have been since each chapter seems to be completely independent of its fellows. Other than the setting, nothing connects them, not characters or historical development or even location. Such lack of continuity suggests they may well have worked better as separately published stories than they do as a novel.

In each story we encounter a hatred between the races that, so far as it is possible to tell, is entirely irrational. Each has language, each has culture, yet neither side makes any attempt to understand or even learn about the other. Humans, en masse, decide the darztls are ugly and therefore not worthy of any consideration. The darztls, en masse, decide that humans are ugly and therefore not worthy of any consideration. So instead the humans brutalise every darztl they capture, and the darztls enslave every human they capture. Each side is monstrous to the other, which pushes them ever further apart.

We are, in other words, not on Mars II, we are not witnessing the imaginatively conceived and thoughtfully developed relationship between two species. No, we are in the Middle East, where the brutal realities of Abu Ghraib and the heedless bombing of wedding parties on the one side, and roadside mines and videos of hostage beheadings on the other, are rendered as crude and simplistic allegory. Not that there is anything wrong with allegory, and the monstrosity of what is being done by both sides in the name of the war on terror cries out for howls of rage and merciless disgust. The problem here is that the allegory isn't done well enough as either an expression of literary outrage or as a work of the imagination.

Invariably, cruelty is perpetrated by the mob, nameless, faceless, a sort of mechanical chorus line of violence. There is never any attempt to make them individuals, to identify motives or beliefs, it is simply enough that whenever the plot calls for a beating or a maiming or a rape (which it does with unnerving regularity), a figure steps out of the background, commits the crime, and is absorbed back into the mass once more. There is no examination here, no questioning, no understanding. Violence is just a fact of nature, nothing more personal than that.

The only characters who come into any sort of focus are the good guys, the ones who work to bring the two sides together. Focus, in this context, does not include giving them names, providing individual characteristics, or showing them learning in anything other than the crudest sense; the good guys instinctively know that their own side has committed atrocities and that the two sides should live together. The bad are inherently bad, the good are inherently good; there is no real change, development, growth on offer here, there is no reform possible. And as is the way of things, the good guys suffer. The various tortures undergone are described with an avid detail that is almost pornographic.

The plot, such as it is since much that is important takes place off stage, covers roughly 100 Mars II years, from the time the human ship lands. There are, apparently, diplomatic contacts between the two races early on, though neither side seems to make any effort to learn anything about the other, and we never learn why the two don't attempt to collaborate in repairing the ship, or why the humans decide to stay in what is clearly a hostile environment to them. All of a sudden, without any obvious trigger, the two races are at war: the darztls take hostages whom they put to work in the mines; the humans embark of a course of terraforming that they know will make the planet uninhabitable to the native darztls. Eventually the darztls raid the human colony; the mother ship gets away but most of the humans are abandoned to their fate. Meanwhile, like Asimov's Second Foundation, a secret village has been growing in the desert populated by both humans and darztls who believe in co-operation. End of story. Or rather, this isn't the story, since few of the characters we meet take part in any of the main events (other than the raid on the colony), and not one of them is privy to the decision making processes that set any of these events in motion.

For me, the novel fails as fiction because it permits no shades, no gradations, no process, and there is no involvement in the characters because one doesn't sense that they are doing anything other than following predetermined allegorical roles. Yet the book fails as allegory because it reduces its target to something so simplistic that it is too easy to dismiss.

Copyright © 2008 by Paul Kincaid

Paul Kincaid is the recipient of the SFRA's Thomas D. Clareson Award for Distinguished Service for 2006. His collection of essays and reviews, What it is we do when we read science fiction is published by Beccon Publications.


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