Science fiction for the spring, May 2019

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Having now read Nina Allan’s second novel, The Rift, shortly after finishing her third novel, The DollmakerI feel like I’m getting a better grasp of her overarching literary project. Allan’s novels explore the line between fantasy and reality, presenting a relatively realistic version of the present while making our own world persistently sinister. She’s especially interested in parallel stories – both The Rift and The Dollmaker include sections from fictional texts, whether those are fairy tales, newspaper cuttings, lists, alien histories or alien novels. Because of this, both these novels are ‘speculative’ in the broadest sense; neither absolutely rests on the existence of any SF or fantasy element. However, The Rift opens up a much bigger space for reader speculation than The Dollmaker, and perhaps that was one of the reasons I liked it so much better.

The premise is simple. Selena’s sister Julie goes missing at the age of seventeen and turns up twenty years later, claiming to have been mysteriously transported to another planet, which she calls Tristane. Selena wonders if Julie is deliberately deceiving her, or if she is mentally ill, or if she’s really her sister at all. However, Julie’s own narrative is remarkably coherent, and she knows things that only she could know about the sisters’ past. On one reading, The Rift, like The Dollmaker, uses this set-up to explore the experience of loss and change on a metaphorical level. Allan doesn’t make the connections for us, but lets us draw our own conclusions. Selena watches a documentary about a woman in the States, Sharon, who was kidnapped and held prisoner for seven years: ‘Selena gained the impression that Sharon Wade no longer cared if people believed her or not. They could believe her or think she was lying, that was their choice.’ Julie hears an apocryphal story about Tristane’s twin planet, Dea, and a monster called the creef that invades human bodies and hollows them out from the inside, gradually eroding their identity.

However, what worked better about The Rift for me is that there’s also space for the reader to believe Julie’s story, if they want to. The novel is infused with eeriness; nothing overtly scary happens, but it’s still a very unsettling reading experience, uncanny in the most specific sense. As Julie’s teacher recalls in a newspaper article after her disappearance: ‘You know the strangest thing about her? Julie was terrified of black holes. She told me they gave her nightmares. When I asked her why, she said that black holes proved there were a lot of things we didn’t know about the universe, and most of them were terrifying.’ Allan explores the line between what we know to be true and what we know to be false, and suggests that the state of that knowledge is fragmentary at best. This incredible novel has to be a contender for one of my favourite books of 2019. Thanks to Victoria at Eve’s Alexandria for the recommendation!

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Unlike The Rift, Children of Time, which won the Arthur C. Clarke award for best novel in 2016, is proper, hard-core science fiction. The remains of the human race are sleeping in stasis on a cargo ship called the Gilgamesh having fled from an uninhabitable Earth. Far in the past, their space-faring ancestors terraformed distant planets as homes for new life, and the Gilgamesh happens upon one of these planets, which looks like the last hope for humanity. Unfortunately, it’s guarded by an aggressive and hostile AI, and populated by giant spiders. Children of Time spans centuries through the eyes of its principal protagonist, the classicist Holsten, who is continually awoken at times of crisis and then sent back to stasis.This incredibly clever device allows Tchaikovsy to tell a massive story about the human race’s interactions with this new planet while giving the reader an anchor.

This is necessary, because Children of Time, like a number of epic SF novels I’ve read, suffers from a certain coldness. Tchaikovsy is clearly most interested in exploring big questions about evolution, co-operation and society, and I love cerebral science fiction, but the individual element sometimes gets a little lost. While the characterisation isn’t bad, we only ever see these people when they’re doing important things; there’s no sense of what they do when they need to take a break, or be with other people. Arguably, this is because the key characters are only awake for short periods of time, but if so, I’d have liked to have seen the psychological impact of this more deeply explored (although Tchaikovsy, to be fair, does make a stab at this through a running theme about Holsten being ‘the oldest man in the universe’, a statement that’s both true and not true at different points).

Alongside the story of the Gilgamesh, a second, equally dominant narrative thread in Children of Time covers the evolution of a race of giant, sentient spiders on the terraformed planet, and how they too begin to reach out to the stars. Again, this is imaginatively handled; while generations of spiders are born and die, Tchaikovsy uses the same set of names for his central characters in each generation (‘Portia’, ‘Bianca’, ‘Viola’, ‘Fabian’), so we feel like we have something to hang onto. However, I found this strand of this story much less compelling than the alternate half of the novel. Part of this is personal preference: I’m not especially interested in reading about primitive societies. By the end of the novel, the spiders have become an interesting, sophisticated civilisation, but this is really only in play for the last few chapters. There are good plot reasons for this, but sometimes I couldn’t shake the sense that this was 600 pages of set-up for the next novel in the series, Children of Ruin. The inevitable conflict between human and spider is solved rather neatly, and while I don’t think the solution is a cop-out, as such, I’d have bought into it more if it had been the beginning of a novel rather than the end. Nevertheless, I have to admire Tchaikovsy’s ambition and imagination, and I’d be up for reading the sequel.

I have also recently read one relatively poor speculative novel, Luiza Sauma’s Everything You Ever Wantedand one really awful science fiction novel, SK Vaughn’s Across the VoidLinks are to my Goodreads reviews! Finally, I’ve just started reading Annalee Newitz’s Autonomouswhich is about space pirates.

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12 thoughts on “Science fiction for the spring, May 2019

  1. Hah – our reading seems to be aligning rather – I’ve got mini-reviews of The Dollmaker and of Children of Time this week! Very keen on Allan, like you, although I felt exactly the opposite way about the two POVs in Children of Time: the spiders compelled my interest much more than the humans, perhaps because the narrative was following the growth and development of the spiders, whereas human civilization is clearly stagnating/foundering/even possibly devolving, which I found both less interesting and more familiar.

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    • I think if spider civilisation had started at the level it finished at I would have found the two threads equally compelling, but I wasn’t that interested in the hunter-gathering society and the evolution material. It possibly also suffered from me just being totally gripped by the evil AI thread – I can imagine that I’ve have enjoyed the spider story more if the whole book had been about spiders, whereas I found myself skimming the spider sections to find out what happened next. Tchaikovsy blends SF and horror so well.

      Great that you’ve also discovered Allan!

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      • Fascinating – because the evil AI thread just frustrated me! The whole going-to-the-grey-planet thing, and then turning around and coming back, seemed so obvious a wild-goose chase that I felt rather frustrated by the amount of time it took up (and the fact that it took up time was obviously the whole point). Apparently Tchaikovsky’s academic background is in zoology–which absolutely figures–and it’s probably just a question of whether watching a society evolve at speed is interesting to a particular reader or not. (What made it work so well for me is the fact that spiders are so different from monkeys, in terms of their communication and the way they relate to each other, that the development of their society is necessarily going to be different too, and watching the differences unfold [like their use of silk, and chemical conditioning of ant colonies to make crude computers instead of using conductive minerals] fascinated me.)

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        • So fun that you guys overlapped on the Tchaikovsky. I think based on my response to The Sparrow/Children of God (I couldn’t get through the sequel because of its focus on the cultural practices of the alien races) and my reluctance to start series, I wouldn’t have good mileage with Children of Time.

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          • Possibly not–although I think the sequel (which I read this in preparation for) is not something you necessarily feel you have to race out and read after finishing this; it doesn’t really end on a cliffhanger and I’d have been perfectly content to consider it a standalone.

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        • I agree, that bit of the plot was definitely only there to make everything hang together, and was clunky (though I liked the moral discussions about leaving people on the moon base, which, although ultimately irrelevant, did thematically prefigure the later material about generations on the Gilgamesh who only live to ensure a better world in the future – which I thought T could have made more off).

          I liked the spider technology that you mention, but a lot of it seemed to be weighted towards the end of the narrative – though the bit when the humans discover that the spiders have constructed a space web around the planet is just an amazingly horrific moment! I suspect I’ll like the spiders a lot more in the sequel, now they’ve reached a certain stage of tech development – I never enjoyed the zoology bits in Biology A Level, I just wanted to study biochemistry and human biology 🙂

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  2. I liked to see your thoughts on Children of Time, cuz I’m thinking if I should give it a shot or note. I’ve heard some people saying a lot of good things about it, but others, like you, say that it doesn’t explore the individual side so much, which’s a turn off to me. I honestly prefer stories that are about individuals as much as they are about reflections on our society. Great post!

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    • It’s a difficult call with this one. There’s some individual interest with the human cast (I liked Holsten) but the spiders don’t develop at all as individuals due to the generational skips, and I could definitely have done with more character development even among the humans.

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