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.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Sit Rep

I've just fired the manuscript of Austral through the ether to my agent and editor, the second stage of what was just a notion (someone on the run in a greening Antarctica, getting into deeper trouble with every step) becoming a thing. (The first step was, of course, writing it down.)

At this stage I should fall over for a while, but there are other things to do. One of them is reviewing all the novels nominated for the 2016 Clarke Awards. So far I've read five and reviewed four -- the reviews can be found by scrolling down just a bit. After I've posted the last review, I'll write an overview post, asking what the six tell us about the state of British science fiction publishing, and lightly speculating on which of them might win.

Adam Roberts used to do this roundup on a regular basis, and did it far better than me, but after Nina Allan commented that no one seemed to be doing it this time around I thought I'd pick up the gauntlet. So far it's been a lot less like work than I thought it would be, although emitting a review roughly once a week is hardly pushing myself. A couple of decades ago I was reviewing six or seven novels for Interzone once every other month while writing my own books and holding down an actual job. Ah, but I was so much younger then; I'm older than that now.

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