The Etched City – Magic and Metamorphosis

K. J. Bishop’s first novel, The Etched City, appeared in 2003 and is her only novel to date. I had read a couple of her short stories, most notably “The Art of Dying” from the Vandermeer’s The New Weird anthology, so I was somewhat prepared for Bishop’s world of gunslingers and duelists, artists and prostitutes. At the same time, The Etched City is a novel that I can’t get out of my head and that I have trouble explaining to others when I try.

The Plot: After years of fighting a military dictator, former compatriots Raule and Gwynn leave the desert for the exotic city of Ashamoil. There Raule is shunned from the school of doctors despite her extensive knowledge of field medicine and instead takes a post in a religious hospital in one of the poorest districts of the city. Gwynn takes work as a hired gun for a slave trader, to Raule’s disgust. As Raule and Gwynn see each other more and more rarely, Gwynn begins an affair with a young artist named Beth, and at this point, the novel starts getting weird; Gwynn’s work situation becomes increasingly unstable as his girlfriend’s mental state appears to be deteriorating as well (at one point he goes to her house to find her with a bunch of strangers sewing together different parts of dead animals to create chimeric creatures). Beth eventually leaves the city, and shortly thereafter, Gwynn and Raule both decide to do the same, though separately.

In many ways, this novel felt less like a narrative and more like a series of very striking moments; Bishop’s language was frequently visceral and vivid, but I had trouble seeing how things really fit together over time. I was even a little disappointed that we spent so little time with Raule when I found her much more interesting that Gwynn; once the two reach the city of Ashamoil, we become deeply embroiled in the goings-on of Gwynn and his employer, with occasional glimpses at what Raule is doing. One thing that I did really like, though, is the way that magic is introduced in the novel. I really like when magic isn’t normally part of a world and the characters have to come to terms with extraordinary events just as readers do. Add in the fact that several characters are also alcoholics and drug users, and it makes it hard to tell when something extraordinary is actually happening and when it’s only happening in the mind of a character. As such, the first few magical events are easily passed off as misperception or hallucination, but it slowly becomes clear that not all things are as they seem.

This unfolding of the magical world corresponds with one of the dominant themes of the novel, that of metamorphosis. A wide number of items and events in the novel are related to this theme: eggs, cocoons, fetuses, lobotomies, flowers, etc. Contrasted with this are moments of stasis, such as the poor of the city who have little to no mobility or the “primitive” people that Gwynn’s employer holds in a never-ending civil war for the sake of his slave trade. The Rev seems to be a nexus for these themes in that he finds himself able to produce many kinds of small magic, but ultimately he is stuck with his own guilt and self-doubt and romantic fantasies about young, nubile women.

Since I read The Etched City for my SLA exam, I ended up thinking a lot about how the constructed contrast between urban and rural areas works in New Weird fiction. Much of the criticism on China Miéville’s work concerns his construction of social spaces within urban environments, and after reading The Etched City, I’m increasingly interested in how urban and rural locations are related to issues of agency in these works.

 

The Snow Queen – Mysticism and Science

I’m back after a long holiday hiatus with Joan D. Vinge’s 1981 Hugo winner The Snow Queen. I’ve seen this novel compared to Frank Herbert’s Dune a number of times, and being a rather passionate fan of the Dune novels (though I’ve occasionally asked if I could possibly get away with rewriting the sometimes dreadful prose), I was skeptical that Vinge’s universe could live up to Herbert’s; this was, after all, I said snottily to myself and others, the woman who wrote the novelizations for Mad Max Beyond ThunderdomeLadyhawke, and Cowboys and Aliens.

I had to eat every snotty thing I had said.

The Plot: The world of Tiamat has been refused official entrance in the Hegemony for quite some time due to its particular social structure: populated by two clans, the Winters and the Summers, the planet undergoes significant shift in power every 150 years, with each clan alternating rule. This shift in power is caused by the dramatic changes in planetary ecology resulting from the changes in the dual suns’ orbit around a black hole, in fact the black hole that allows interplanetary travel to and from Tiamat. What happens is this: for 150 years the Snow Queen and the Winters rule, indulging in technology and trading with offworlders, while the Hegemony maintains contact and a police force on the planet, located in the city of Carbuncle. Then, the planetary changes begin, the Summers flock to Carbuncle because the equitorial areas where they live during Winter become too hot for habitation, a Summer Queen is crowned, the Hegemony leaves the planet, and all technological progress ceases and even regresses, owing to both the Summers’ primitive lifestyle and refusal to engage with technological devices and the fact that when the Hegemony leaves all the devices that they might have left behind cease functioning immediately.

Of course, the offworlders have their own reasons for wanting Tiamat to make no technological progress: the water of life, the blood of the indigenous sea creatures known as mers that, when taken regular, staves off aging and death. If Tiamat gained technological freedom, they would no longer be forced to trade the water of life at such premiums. But the current Snow Queen, Arienrhod, has a plan, which begins with implanting several Summer women attending the Festival held every 20 years in Carbuncle with clones of herself. Only one of these clones, Moon, survives to adolescence, closely bonded with her cousin and lover Sparks. She and Sparks plan to become sibyls, individual highly revered among the Summers who can go into a trance state and answer any question asked of them through the power of their goddess (the Winters fear and kill sibyls).  However, while Moon is accepted as a trainee sibyl, Sparks is turned away and, because of the popular beliefs concerning contamination in sibyls’ bodily fluids, can no longer be Moon’s lover. He leaves his Summer family for Carbuncle, intent on exploring his offworlder heritage (his unknown father left his mother a medal proving his offworld status). Arienrhod quickly scoops up Sparks with the intention of using him to lure Moon to Carbuncle in order to train her as her Summer replacement so that Moon may continue the revolution that Arienrhod has begun. After receiving a message supposedly from Sparks asking her to come to Carbuncle, Moon sets off, but along the way she becomes involved with offworld smugglers who must make a desperate run from Hegemony police. Hence, though it is very much illegal, Moon ends up on the Hegemony capital planet of Kharemough, where she discovers that sibyls exist throughout the Hegemony without the same stigma that is propagated throughout Carbuncle. In fact, the Hegemony encourages fear of sibyls as a means of keeping the people of Tiamat in the dark, since, instead of communing with their goddess, sibyls are actually connecting to a large database of information put in place before the fall of the previous Hegemony so that humanity would not regress entirely. With this new knowledge in hand, Moon returns to Tiamat, only to find that in her absence, Sparks has become Starbuck, the Snow Queen’s consort, lover, and hunter of mers, something abhorred and forbidden by the Summers. As she rescues Sparks and becomes the Summer Queen, Moon also discovers something Arienrhod never suspected: the database of sibyl knowledge is actually stored on Tiamat, below Carbuncle, and the mers are intelligent, genetically engineered creatures designed to protect and maintain the database. Armed with this knowledge, Moon takes her place as Summer Queen as the offworlders leave, hoping to bring about some kind of change in the relationship between the Hegemony and Tiamat in her reign.

I immediately understood why so many people were connecting this novel with Dune: the water of life is the spice, the Tiamatans are the Fremen, the Hegemony is the Galactic Empire, and so on and so forth. But beyond this superficial plot connections, I found that this novel had a very similar combination of mysticism and science, and I was especially delighted to see that even when the unexplainable is explained in detail by science, such as how the sibyls get their knowledge, the ritual of the thing is not diminished. This is not a novel about progressive science vs. primitive mysticism; rather, it is about the power of hybridity, and even Moon who formerly had no interest in technology, who saw it as having nothing to do with her life, comes to understand the importance of her “primitive” Summer culture changing their attitudes and instead putting technology to use, not against the Winters, but against the offworlders.

In fact, I like this book better than Dune in a lot of ways, and I especially enjoyed the feminist aspects: the matriarchal society, the valuing of “intuitive” knowledge in the form of the sibyls, a focus on the way romantic relationships between two people are also indicative of larger politics, and so on and so forth. But more than that, I liked that line between good and evil wasn’t drawn at all. Granted, in Dune we begin rooting for the Atreides against the Harkonnen but quickly realize that when it comes to the Fremen, both are equally bad. However, the Harkonnens are never not evil. The same might be said for the Emperor. In The Snow Queen, we begin by rooting for the Summers against the Winters, but quickly realize that the divide is superficial in the larger picture; even cold and seemingly heartless Arienrhod has developed her plans in order to better the lives of her people, including the Summers. We might then turn our animosity toward Gaia Jerusha PaleThion, a representative of the Hegemonic police force in Carbuncle, but her story is rife with its own problems, especially concerning her difficult career as a female law enforcement officer in a man’s Hegemony. We then look toward the capital planet of Kharemough and its inhabitants but, though they are nice and smug about their place in the grand scheme of things, their lives are also governed by a complicated social system that frequently demands ritualistic suicide and shuns those who are unable to carry through with such. Even the prime minister of the Hegemony admits that he is only a figurehead for attending Festivals and parades and has no real power. In short, the only thing we have left to hate is the system itself, the Hegemony devoid of any representative individual. And perhaps that is one of the things that is so enthralling about this book: you know that someone somewhere has to be benefiting from this system, but you just don’t know who.

In terms of language, Vinge has a fascinating way of representing languages that are not Tiamatan. While Tiamatan is presented as standard English, other languages are written in English but each with its own idiomatic syntax, as though this is what it would be if translated quite literally. For example, the Sandhi language is characterized by Yoda-like syntax:

Elsevier lifted her hands. “Forgive me, KR — I didn’t come politics to argue, or your time of mine to waste. I’ve to you in your apolitical capacity come; and I’ve brought someone who your guidance needs.” (179)

Klostan features a limiting of be verbs and a lack of verb tenses other than the present:

“You hardly touch your meal. And after all the trouble your finest chefs go to to please us. This canawaba rind be excellent.”

“I not eat many twelve-course dinners in my line of work […] I guess I not be up to the challenge.”

I find this technique of depicting other languages fascinating, perhaps because it seems to simple yet I’ve never seen it done before. Furthermore, it illustrates a place for alternative Englishes in the spec-fic cannon, and I’d like to see more works that embrace alternative Englishes as a means of adding depth to language in the genre.