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April 2004
 
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Books
by Robert K. J. Killheffer

Edenborn, by Nick Sagan, Putnam, 2004, $19.95.

Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell, Random House, 2004, $14.95.

Air, by Geoff Ryman, St. Martin's Griffin, 2004, $14.95.

TRADITION has it that, at various points in the yearly cycle, and most especially at Halloween, the border between the lands of the living and the dead grows thin and porous, and for a time the denizens of each world may cross over and mingle with the dwellers in the other. It seems to me that something similar occurs along the border between "mainstream" fiction and the territory of the sf and fantasy genres. The ghetto gates open, the membrane thins, and for a while the separate worlds accept and even invite the intrusions of the other.

Such a time was the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the New Wave set out explicitly to adopt the narrative techniques and aspirations of non-genre writing, while millions of readers far from the usual sf circles embraced Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land, Herbert's Dune, and Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. And such a time may be upon us again, as Susanna Clarke's intricate historical fantasy Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is published with fanfare to the non-genre market, and Philip Roth rides an alternate history novel to the top of the bestseller lists and widespread acclaim. Meanwhile, some of sf's quirkier writers (such as Jonathan Lethem and Karen Joy Fowler) have enjoyed comparable success with their ventures into mainstream territory, and the two worlds mingle shamelessly in novels such as Audey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife (a Today Show Book Club selection, no less), wherein a science-fictional premise illuminates a moving contemporary love story.

For years, publishers have taken the occasional sf novel that might be particularly accessible to non-genre readers and billed it as a "futuristic" or "near-future" thriller to avoid the sf stigma, and that's what happened with Nick Sagan's first two novels, Idlewild (2003) and now Edenborn. They've been published under the Putnam name, not the house sf imprint Ace, and their covers avoid obvious genre signals in favor of more impressionistic images (Edenborn sports an angry red cell that calls to mind The Hot Zone). The strategy seems to have worked—Idlewild picked up favorable reviews in Entertainment Weekly and The San Francisco Chronicle, and Edenborn scored space in The New York Times Book Review, outside of the usual sf column.

Behind the packaging, however, Sagan's novels are competent though not particularly original takes on familiar sf scenarios. Idlewild gave us an amnesiac adolescent who discovers he's living in a world of immersive virtual reality (IVR) created to raise him and the handful of other kids he knows because the world has been wiped out by a disease called the Black Ep. Edenborn picks up the story eighteen years later, with the kids grown up and responding to their predicament as last people on Earth in various ways. Some are dead, some are missing, but three of them have used their IVR-honed skills to restart some cloning and genetic engineering equipment in an attempt to repopulate the planet. One of them, Isaac, disagrees with the other two on a fundamental principle: He believes they should bring back unmodified humans and use the technology to find a cure for Black Ep, while the others think they should engineer their "children" to create people immune to the disease, even if the changes produce a species that's no longer strictly human.

Sagan's got a knack for keeping the pages turning, but he leaves the intriguing issues and possibilities of the post-apocalypse scenario largely undeveloped in favor of the self-indulgent preoccupations of his characters (in particular Penny, one of the "posthuman" girls, around whom the plot comes to turn). Few of these characters are especially interesting or even convincing, except for Haji, one of Isaac's unmodified children. Isaac has raised his kids in his Sufi Islamic faith, and Haji's youthful struggle to discern the will of God in the plague-haunted world is not only endearing and poignant, but constitutes the most unusual element in Edenborn. It's rare to find sympathetic treatments of religious faith in sf, and these days even rarer to find Islam portrayed anywhere as anything but a jihadist's delusion. Haji's presence elevates what is otherwise a moderately entertaining but thoroughly derivative book.

It's this derivative quality, however, that makes Sagan's novels such good candidates for the non-genre audience. (Sagan's cinematic pacing and style—he's written for television shows such as Star Trek: Voyager—don't hurt, either.) There are a couple of generations now that have been steeped in the basics of sf through film and TV, Star Trek and The Terminator and Outbreak and The Day After Tomorrow. A post-apocalyptic Earth has become as viable and unchallenging a setting as 1960s Topeka for the familiar diet of self-involved adolescent angst and melodrama.

* * *

David Mitchell's third novel, Cloud Atlas, was reviewed in the same issue of The New York Times Book Review as Sagan's Edenborn, but otherwise it occupies an entirely different region of the literary landscape. Mitchell has been something of a darling of the hip lit world since the appearance of his first novel, Ghostwritten (2000), particularly in Britain, where all three of his novels to date have been shortlisted for the Man Booker prize. He's been justly celebrated for his narrative ventriloquism, inventive structures, and undisguised yet unimposing ambition. Mitchell isn't afraid to take risks, and he makes use of whatever literary techniques and traditions suit his purposes—including the devices of sf.

Ghostwritten featured nine distinct but intertwined first-person narratives—a Japanese doomsday cultist, a Hong Kong lawyer, a Russian art thief, a radio talk-show host, even a disembodied intelligence migrating through Mongolia—each story adding layers of coincidental and metaphorical interconnection to create an evocative though tenuous unity. Cloud Atlas uses a similar structure, a sequence of six stories with even more widely varying narrators and techniques, to produce an intriguing, elusive sense of wholeness. Mitchell opens with the journal of Adam Ewing, a California notary on the return journey from the South Seas to San Francisco in 1850, but his story breaks off literally in mid-sentence, and the novel jumps to the 1930s with the correspondence of an aspiring composer and disinherited wastrel, Robert Frobisher, as he works his way into the good graces of one of his aging musical heroes. Again Mitchell cuts the story off midway, and jumps ahead to the 1970s with a kind of political thriller told in choppy cinematic mini-scenes, and thence to the memoir of an aging British vanity publisher trapped in an old-age home. From there we enter sf waters, with the interview-confession of Sonmi-451, a rebellious clone in a corporation-dominated Korea of the near future, and finally to the story of Zachry, a member of one of the few remaining pockets of semi-civilization in a post-collapse, further-future Hawaii. Zachry's story proceeds start to finish, and then each of the five abbreviated strands resume in reverse order, like a bit of recursive computer code working its way back up with a result.

Mitchell's unconventional narrative structures may invite comparison to Nabokov, Cortázar, Pynchon—or, in the sf field, Gene Wolfe—but beyond the unconventionality and self-referentiality, Mitchell's work isn't quite a match for any of those. He lacks Nabokov's eccentric vision, Cortázar's density of construction, Pynchon's hallucinogenic prose style, and Wolfe's subtlety. Taken by themselves, each of the stories that make up Cloud Atlas are utterly, even slavishly, conventional—Ewing's journal a perfect pastiche of the period style, Frobisher's letters a model of epistolary narrative, even the sf sections proceeding along familiar lines. Nevertheless, Cloud Atlas enchants with the constant surprise of Mitchell's virtuosity as he shifts from voice to voice and mode to mode, and with his refreshing brio, an unrestrained passion for storytelling rarely equaled in contemporary fiction, inside or outside the genre. One can hardly resist getting caught up in the energy of Mitchell's performance. And, as in Ghostwritten, the whole amounts to more than the sum of its parts. A sense of unity emerges from the repetition of images, metaphors, and coincidences—an almost metaphysical awareness of the interconnectedness and interdependence of things, of the vast incomprehensible flow of history which we can only glimpse in the form of discrete narratives that inevitably obscure the larger truth of the whole.

What's striking about Cloud Atlas, from the point of view of a genre sf reader, is that the two sf sections are in fact the most emotionally affecting parts of the book. Though Mitchell can be a little clumsy in his genre mechanics—we might accept that computers in Sonmi's Korea could come to be known generically as "sonys," but it's hardly possible that photographs will be called "kodaks"—he takes the sf scenarios at least as seriously as he does the others. The sf sections are the only ones which could conceivably stand alone as independent stories. The other four narratives certainly have all the parts, and they're interesting enough in the context of the novel, but they're not substantial enough to be read by themselves. It's not difficult, however, to imagine the tales of Sonmi and Zachry (though they don't exactly break new ground) appearing on their own in the pages of this very magazine.

More striking still, the sf sections perform a crucial function in Mitchell's scheme. He's not dabbling in sf on a lark—he needs it to achieve his goals. Without the perspective of the future, Mitchell could not have conjured the sense of universal interconnectedness that emerges by the end of the book, and without the inventive freedom sf allows, Mitchell could not have produced some of his most evocative parallels. In Zachry's story, for instance, there's a clear echo of the account in Ewing's journal of the fate of the peaceful and more civilized Moriori at the hands of the warlike Maori. The parallel closes the historical and thematic circle. The use of sf in Cloud Atlas may herald a more permanent and fruitful extrusion of genre devices into the broader literary toolkit.

Toward the end of Cloud Atlas, the composer Frobisher describes the work he has just completed—"Cloud Atlas Sextet," which he hopes will be his masterpiece—in terms that clearly echo Mitchell's own scheme: "In the first set, each solo is interrupted by its successor: in the second, each interruption is recontinued, in order." And he wonders, "Revolutionary or gimmicky?" For all its pleasures, Cloud Atlas falls short of revolutionary, but it is much more than mere gimmick. Mitchell's obvious ambition encourages us to expect our minds and hearts to be shaken and remade by the end of the novel, and they are not, but Cloud Atlas gives us reason to believe that Mitchell, with his talent and inventiveness and willingness to adopt any mode or voice that furthers his ends, may one day present us with a monument of enduring genius.

* * *

Geoff Ryman has defied categorization for more than a decade—ever since he followed up his award-winning sf novel The Child Garden (1989 UK, 1990 US) with a widely acclaimed non-genre novel, Was (1992), which imagined the tragic life of a Dorothy Gael who never went to Oz. The print version of Ryman's experimental online "novel" 253 (1998) won the Philip K. Dick Award despite its merely tangential relationship to sf. Ryman returned to the clearly fantastical with Lust (2001 UK, 2003 US), the story of a British scientist who discovers that he has the power to make his every sexual fantasy come true. By that point, however, Ryman was widely recognized as a non-genre writer (Publishers Weekly even called Lust "his third novel," completely ignoring his sf work), and Lust was published as a non-genre book, a "fable for the modern age."

Ryman's latest novel, Air (the first chapter of which did appear in the pages of this very magazine, under the title "Have Not Have"), is just as straightforwardly science-fictional as Lust, and yet almost as likely to appeal to readers beyond the usual reaches of the genre. The tiny village of Kizuldah, in the fictional Central Asian country of Karzistan, has remained mostly unchanged through the centuries, remote among the mountains, but in the year 2020 Kizuldah becomes the last village in the world to get connected to the Internet—and, shortly thereafter, it experiences the test run of a revolutionary new communications technology, Air, which promises to connect everyone, everywhere, through a kind of pervasive field. No wires, no implants, and no escape—Air will cover the entire world at once.

Chung Mae is the village dressmaker and "fashion expert," as well as one of its chief sources of information about the outside world (which she brings back from her occasional trips to the larger town of Yeshibozkent). When the Air test comes, the elderly Mrs. Tung is visiting Mae, and the sudden appearance of images and voices in the old, blind woman's head confuses her to the point that she blunders into Mae's boiling washpot. Mae, reeling in confusion as well, cannot help her friend, and as the Air test ends, Mrs. Tung dies. But in her efforts to help Mrs. Tung, Mae established a connection with her through the Air, and she is left with Mrs. Tung's memories living in her head like a ghost—and with a vision of how utterly Air will change life in the village.

Ryman renders the village and people of Kizuldah with such humane insight and sympathy that we experience the novel almost like the Air it describes: It's around us and in us, more real than real, and it leaves us changed as surely as Mae's contact with Air changes her. Kizuldah seems less like an imaginary place we've read about than a place we've visited, perhaps even lived. Some of Ryman's characters exist more vividly in our minds than our own neighbors.

Such an achievement would be enough to carry any novel, even without the sf device that drives the plot. But that device and the plot it generates provide the perfect platform for Ryman's incisive meditation on the process of social and cultural change. Air is that change, sweeping the world irresistibly, penetrating even places like Kizuldah. It's the disruptive effect that decisions made in wealthy, powerful nations inevitably have on poorer, weaker ones. It's the way new technologies alter not merely the external world, but our inner selves as well. It's how the future erases the past.

Ryman gives us many heartbreakingly elegiac passages that evoke the agony of watching the past die. When a man from the government comes to Kizuldah, sent to encourage the far-flung villages to prepare for Air, he discovers that Mae has already compiled a raft of information about the preparedness of the village by interviewing her neighbors. "What did you find out?" he asks her, and she replies, "That the village has died. I mean our children will become like children everywhere else. They will play computer games and learn everything and the very last of the old ways will go. Absolutely everything we know and love will go."

But, as in The Child Garden, Ryman takes a more complex and ambivalent view of change than these passages alone suggest. He recognizes the tremendous losses that change brings, and the grief that those losses cause, but he resists simplistic nostalgia. He balances his elegies with equally beautiful observations on the wisdom and necessity of acceptance. After the government man leaves, old Mrs. Tung's voice tells Mae, "Of course you are in mourning. We all want an anchor, we all want to turn the corner to go home. But home always goes away. Home leaves us. And we get older and then older again, and farther away from home." Not much later, using Mae's voice, she tells the village schoolteacher, "There has always been one big change after another. But we always think our first world was permanent. Your world came just after the Russians drove out the Chinese. Before you were born, the Eloi were fighting a war against the Chinese. There is no old world to go back to, Shen. My brightest little boy, are you still too young to see that?"

And Ryman carries this ambivalence even further. Change is not only inevitable, it may even be good. Despite all the damage and suffering it occasions, it may also bring about a better world than the one it destroys. Toward the end of the novel, in another instance of perfect metaphor, a flash flood inundates Kizuldah. In the aftermath, Mae broadcasts a kind of eulogy for the village to one of the friends she's made on the net: She describes the devastation, the homes destroyed, the missing neighbors, her own house half-collapsed. And she also describes the temporary lake that all the water has created in the valley. "But look at the beautiful new sea. Look at it sparkle. Look at how full of hope it seems; look, it has seagulls, who could hate such a beautiful sea? Even if it covers houses—houses where you played as children—even if dear friends are trapped inside, their mouths full of mud. Even landscapes die, and give birth to new ones."

This amazing balance that Ryman maintains—mourning change while embracing it—renders Air not merely powerful, thought-provoking, and profoundly moving, but indispensable. It's a map of our world, written in the imaginary terrain of Karzistan. It's a guide for all of us, who will endure change, mourn our losses, and must find a way to love the new sea that swamps our houses, if we are not to grow bitter and small and afraid.

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