Saturday, June 25, 2016

Currently Reading (12)

Like Dante's cosmology, Australia, the spaceship that's the venue of this, the first volume of James Smythe's Young Adult trilogy, is divided into three. At the apex is the notional heaven ruled by the Pale Women. In the middle are the Free People and their arboretum, a technologically enabled Garden of Eden. And below them are the restlessly violent Lows, who live just above the hell pit at the base where all that is unwanted, from trash to human bodies, falls and rots. It's a pocket world whose physical and moral attributes are interlaced, but as teenager Chan Aitch discovers, things are more complicated than they appear, and her hero's journey is no simple ascent.

Australia has been en route to an unclear destination for generations. Apart from fading stories of Earth, it is the only world its inhabitants know, stripped of resources and threatened by destruction when a new leader of the Lows leads a violent invasion of the upper levels. Chan, who mostly tells the tale, claims that she isn't special, but as with all heroes of dystopian YA fiction, her story insists otherwise. In the first scene of the book, she commits matricide on the express orders of her mother, Riadne, so that she will inherit the reputation that has helped to protect the Free People. Riadne's resourceful friend Agatha gives aid, and in interpolated passages explains the terrible circumstances of Chan's birth and the back story of her world. And Chan, armed with the ship's equivalent of a sword and cased in special armour, is possessed by a hard-won conviction that she should save as many as she can from the Lows while hewing to principles learned from the Pale Women's three testaments.

It's a kind of Arthurian search for righteousness filtered through the viewpoint of someone acclimated to brutality. Both the ship's decaying interior and the moral dilemmas Chan faces are forcefully conveyed, and Smythe doesn't flinch from showing the consequences of the savagery of the ship's inhabitants, although sidelong glimpses of horrors are more effective than more detailed -- and more prosaic and somewhat repetitive -- descriptions of Chan's hack and slash brawls. Although it's central to the story, Smythe's spaceship is a low-tech affair -- there's no explanation as to why or how it has gravity, for instance -- but its generic simplicity means that there's no estranging technological wizardry to distract from the urgency of the tale, or from the grimdark atrocities that double down on the bleakness and violence that characterise much contemporary YA dystopias. Along the way, Chan's reluctant heroism engages with the problem of goodness and the consequences of intervention, and she wins two major revelations about the nature and purpose of the ship. The second, familiar to dedicated readers of science fiction (but less so, perhaps, to the novel's target audience), could have rounded out a self-contained story, but instead aims Chan towards a new set of problems and presumably postpones her full enlightenment until completion of the trilogy.


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