Starting the year with speculative fiction

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Natasha Pulley’s The Bedlam Stacks has been on my radar for a while, and I found it totally captivating. Set in 1857, it follows Merrick Tremayne, who was working for the East India Company until a leg injury meant he could no longer do his job. When he’s offered the chance to travel to Peru by his friend Clements Markham as part of an expedition to retrieve cuttings from cinchona trees, which produce the malaria-combating quinine, he feels he has to accept – especially as his family have a long history in the country. However, high in the Peruvian rainforest, Merrick encounters the eerie town of Bedlam, watched over by Incan markayuq – sacred statues – lit by luminescent pollen, and built around a river that boils and freezes by turns. Raphael, a Catholic priest, is his guide to this strange world, but nevertheless, Merrick keeps feeling that he’s missing something – especially when it comes to the line of salt that separates the cinchona plantation from the town of Bedlam, and which he’s told he must not cross.

The Bedlam Stacks recalls a eclectic tangle of previous stories, including Doctor Who’s ‘Blink’, Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder, and David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, with a bit of Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow thrown in for good measure. However, this merely increases its resonance rather than making it feel in any way derivative. Pulley brilliantly draws the reader into a world where we’re genuinely unsure what is fact and what is fantasy, mediated by the unfamiliarity of the setting and Merrick’s own limited understanding and colonial gaze. While I’m by no means an expert on any of this, I did quite a bit of research on nineteenth-century Peru, including reading some of Markham’s travel writing, for a now-abandoned novel project, and also spent a month or so in the country almost ten years ago now. I was hugely impressed by the depth of Pulley’s knowledge, which goes way beyond the things you learn quite quickly as a tourist in Peru, and how cleverly she deploys it in the novel.

Before reading The Bedlam Stacks, I was worried that it might become a little ‘white man goes on an adventure in strange foreign climes’, but Pulley’s writing, while not overtly discussing power structures, probes these kind of narratives in a way I’ve rarely seen done in fiction, although there are a number of academic histories that do this well. In short, Pulley gets the fact that rational explanations for phenomena change depending on who you are, rather than writing off non-Western beliefs as superstitious or naive. She sums this up in a brilliant passage near the end of the book, which I can’t quote because it spoils a central twist, but which uses the metaphor of translation (a key theme throughout the book, as the characters switch between English, Spanish and Quechua) to get at this cultural disconnect. Oh, and there’s also an incredibly moving love story and genuinely funny banter. HIGHLY recommended. It’s the first book I read this year, but, nevertheless, it will surely be a contender for my top ten books of 2019.

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Revelation Space, which was Alistair Reynolds’s debut novel back in 2000, kickstarted a trilogy, and has since been republished in Gollancz’s SF Masterworks series. It appealed to me because it sounded like the same kind of fun, sweeping space opera as James S.A. Corey’s Expanse series, and to an extent, I was right, although I’d say Revelation Space leans more towards the ‘harder’ end of SF. The novel starts with archaeologist Dan Sylveste, having returned, perhaps permanently altered, from the mysterious alien Shroud, investigating the sudden demise of the Amarantin civilisation. A second thread follows Ilia Volyova, part of a Triumvirate who rules over a vast spaceship, who is determined to capture Sylveste and his father’s AI simulation so she can heal the Captain of their ship, who is suffering from a Melding Plague that afflicts both human flesh and its technological implants. Finally, Ana Khouri, a hired assassin, has been planted on the ship by a mysterious entity called Mademoiselle, who wants to see Sylvester dead.

Revelation Space is definitely an entertaining read, and Reynolds engages intelligently with the conventions of the genre, but I found myself a little frustrated by his writing style. Each chapter switches at least once between all three of his protagonists, and Reynolds seems determined to end each section on a cliffhanger, which stops feeling organic and urgent and starts feeling Goosebumps-level cheesy after he does it for the hundredth time, especially as he has a tendency to really underline the tension:

There’s something Khouri and I need to discuss with all of you. It concerns Cerberus.”

Sylveste looked scornful. “What do you know about Cerberus?”

Too much,” Khouri said. “Too damned much.”

This structure also means that the novel is absolutely packed with twists, which makes it longer than it needs to be, and, ironically, means that the really clever switchbacks fall with less force than they should, as the characters are stunned by new information every other page. Reynolds’s excessively cerebral writing also undermined my investment in all his protagonists; I found myself engaging with them more as Machiavellian rational actors* than as human beings. This kept me going, but I don’t think I’ll be rushing out to get the next in the trilogy.

*I know this is a mixed metaphor

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I was utterly absorbed by Mary Doria Russell’s debut novel, The Sparrow, which followed Emilio Sandoz, genius linguist and sole survivor of a Jesuit mission to a distant alien planet, as he deals with reliving the trauma of what happened to him there. So I was keen to get hold of Children of God, its sequel, as quickly as possible. Children of God picks up pretty much where The Sparrow left off, as Emilio tries to rebuild his life on Earth, leaving the priesthood, meeting a woman, and acquiring a guinea pig. However, the Society of Jesus is preparing another mission to Rakat – and they want Emilio to be part of it, even though he’s refused to ever go back to the planet. Parallel threads follow the stories of Supaari VaGayjur, a Jana’ata who initially befriended and then abused Emilio during the previous mission to Rakat, and a burgeoning resistance movement among the second alien species on Rakat, the Runa, who are subjugated by the Jana’ata.

While The Sparrow‘s plot was propelled irresistibly forward by the central mystery of what happened to Emilio’s mission, Children of God is inevitably more reflective, exploring how Emilio tries to renegotiate his relationship with God and with other human beings after what he suffered, and, on Rakat, examining how social norms can be  resisted and overturned. Unlike The Sparrow, which had an especially rich ensemble cast, Children of God is dominated by a couple of protagonists, most notably Emilio, whose struggles with his maimed hands root him firmly in the physical world even as he deals with the most abstract of questions. For me, it was a weaker novel solely because it deals much more squarely with the Jana’ata and the Runa; the sketchy world-building that sufficed in The Sparrow doesn’t really become any more solid, and these chapters feel like reading a middle-of-the-road fantasy novel. However, Emilio’s arc, as we see how he starts to rebuild the wreck of his life, is both gripping and necessary, and it’s worth reading the novel for that alone.

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18 thoughts on “Starting the year with speculative fiction

  1. If I was ever asked to name a book that ‘saved’ me It would be The Sparrow. I had been ill for some time and thought my ability to think deeply about my own area of linguistics had gone for good. It was the conversation about what is necessary as opposed to what is sufficient in syntax – which I twigged before the characters did – that gave me hope that I was on the mend. I agree, though about The Children of God; mind you, anything was going to fall short of that earlier experience. Given that I also loved State of Wonder and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, The Bedlam Stacks has gone straight onto my new year reading list.

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    • Glad to hear The Sparrow was helpful to you – I found the linguistics fascinating but certainly needed all the explanations! For me it’s one of those books, like A Little Life, that some might find needlessly brutal but I thought had great potential for comfort. I did like the fact that Emilio found some kind of peace in the sequel, however.

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  2. The Bedlam Stacks is terrific! I’m so glad it worked for you. Your comments about Revelation Space are also very legit; while I was reading it, I had a smashing time, but it hasn’t made me feel the need to keep reading Reynolds’s sequels. Having loved The Sparrow, I’ve been interested in trying Children of God, but perhaps The Sparrow is too sui generis for a follow-up to work…

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    • My feeling about Children of God is that half of it is mopping up things that belong in The Sparrow (I loved The Sparrow, but the pacing is all wrong) then half of it introduces a new plot on Rakat that didn’t work for me. Therefore, it is worth reading, but doesn’t exactly work as a novel, and I admit I skimmed the Rakat sections…

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  3. I haven’t read any of these books, but I was glad to read about them. I, too, started the year with a speculative fiction novel called We Are Legion (We Are Bob) by Dennis E. Taylor. The plot is more funny than serious — just after selling his software company for loads of money, Bob is struck by a car and dies. He awakes over 100 years later to find out he’s an AI instead of having his head frozen, like he paid for. I’m really enjoying it, and the science is both sciencey and realistic. The book was recommended to me by Lou at https://louloureads.wordpress.com/2018/12/08/we-are-legion-we-are-bob-book-thoughts-sfvsfbingo/

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    • Sounds intriguing! I remember reading a short story when I was a teenager where somebody’s who’s been cryogenically preserved wakes up to find they’ve only been revived so they can be an organ donor, and this kind of scenario has haunted me ever since…

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  4. I feel bad I did not like The Bedlam Stacks. I love Peru and historical fiction, but this book was rather poor, in my opinion. I enjoyed the fantastic elements but had a problem with the “hero”, who I do not consider to be sympathetic at all, and I believe the key passages in the novel were not written well – it is just not clear what is exactly going on, and the language does not “flow”.

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    • I found Merrick very sympathetic. He’s obviously a flawed person but very ready to recognise his flaws. The prose is deliberately dense, and it isn’t a quick read, but I found it a hugely rewarding one.

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      • Well, Merrick went to the jungle knowing that one of the purposes of his company is land-grabbing which also means the killing of indigenous people. He was really fine with that, even though he did come to some obscure realisation at the end. I don’t think it should be forgotten that he represents and must share the views of his company and what happened to Clem and his “role” in it is also a bit too much for me to overlook.

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        • Merrick isn’t ‘sympathetic’ in the sense that he’s a good guy, and I certainly don’t think that Pulley means us to read him as the hero of the story. But I found him engaging and complicated. Before starting The Bedlam Stacks, I did have fears that it would be a ‘white adventurer travels to foreign lands’ kind of story, but I think Pulley actually handles this very well, as detailed in my review.

          The Bedlam Stacks has a complex plot, so I’m happy to be corrected on these points, but IIRC, at the point when Merrick goes to Peru he thinks he’s just going to steal some plant seedlings. This is obviously wrong in itself, and you’re right to point out his association with the East India Company, but he doesn’t actually decide to go and grab land and kill people. Once he’s there, he tries to mitigate the situation, which is the whole point of him letting Clem go into the forest, as he thinks this has the best chance of saving the village. (I find it hard to hold M responsible for this anyway, as C made his own choice here)

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          • Thanks for your detailed reply. I guess it is a praise to this book that some situations and characters can be viewed differently by different people. I still find it very hard to draw such a clear distinction between Merrick, and Sing and the company he worked for so many years. He was a smuggler, who had to know about the broader aims of the company and all the sinister implications behind the idea of just getting the cuttings to cure malaria (that must be the case of guilt by association). As an ex-smuggler, he cannot be so ignorant and idealistic (that is too unbelievable if he is).
            The fact that he is there at all is already morally questionable because his reckless presence and actions endangered the village, and the fact that we have to feel for him when he tries “to save” the village is like setting a wolf into a cage full of hens and then justifying the action by giving this wolf in the cage raw meat so it wont eat the hens. But I guess that is just my personal opinion, and thanks again for replying, I enjoy talking this over.

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            • Oh yes, totally agree re ‘saving’ the village. I only mentioned that as it was his motivation for letting Clem go into the forest, and so it explains his actions in relation to Clem. I don’t think it lessens his moral culpability for the situation at all, and I don’t think Pulley does either. Good to talk this over – I think I’d have to re-read to fully assess Merrick!

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  5. Pingback: Science fiction for the spring, May 2019 | Laura Tisdall

  6. Pingback: Mid-Year Check-In Tag | Laura Tisdall

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