Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Another Dimension
  Book Reviews by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro
January 2015

Title: Twenty Trillion Leagues Under the Sea
Editor: Adam Roberts
Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin

Over the last fifteen years Adam Roberts has published fifteen science fiction novels, nine parodies, two short story collections, books on various aspects of sf and other scholarly studies. In addition to being extremely well-versed in literature and history he also knows a thing or nine about science. His recent novel Jack Glass (2012) received, among other accolades, the John W. Campbell Memorial Award. If you aren't familiar with Roberts' work, I hope this review will spark your interest.

Twenty Trillion Leagues Under the Sea is obviously inspired by Jules Verne's classic Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870). Roberts' novel begins on the 29th of June, 1958 (Verne's starts on the 20th of July, 1866) in a world not quite our own. The French submarine Plongeour, outfitted with an experimental atomic pile and a skeleton crew, sets out on a series of diving tests. During one of these descents it finds itself sinking uncontrollably. Equipment malfunctions; pressure mounts; everyone expects to die. And yet somehow they don't, but rather continue to plummet to ever more absurd depths -- five thousand meters, ten thousand, fifty thousand, and so on, well beyond where the seabed should have stopped them. Questions abound: Why hasn't the pressure crushed them? Where are they? Will they make it back home alive? And of course we as readers wish to know: Is the novel's title meant literally (if I were in a punning mood I might say "litorally"), or is it hyperbole? All is eventually answered.

During their increasingly bizarre journey the novel's characters entertain plenty of hypotheses. But as the voyage continues, without end in sight, they begin to break down, and Bad Things Happen. Fortunately, absurdist humor tends to leaven the grimness. In one of my favorite exchanges, one character chastises another with the scornful "assuming you are a Christian;" the antagonized character responds, "I'm a dialectical materialist;" to which the first says, "Some kind of Protestant, eh?"

Roberts' handling of tone and language is precise. The earlier chapters are measured and richly descriptive. As events become more violent and behaviors more desperate, the prose adjusts accordingly -- though never quite shedding a deliberate quasi-19th-century novel patina.

The strange environments and unraveling psyches are masterfully depicted, but I have a few quibbles. As befits Roberts' literary model(s), all the characters are male. But since history is different here, couldn't he have included women too? Perhaps a bigger challenge is that the characters are not particularly well individuated, and the most disagreeable ones tend to feature most heavily. As a result, even though the novel's central mystery, along with smaller conundrums that accrue, coral-like, chapter by chapter, are more than enough to propel us forward, it's hard to care much about the characters as individuals.

Still, these faults are rendered pint-sized by the novel's oceanic excellences. Without giving away specifics, I'll say that its resolution entails fascinating cosmological world-building. In fact, I think the novel's lineage antedates Verne: the story's ingenious literalization of metaphysical ideas evokes Voltaire's "contes philosophiques."

So, then, how exactly does Roberts' novel relate to Verne's -- sequel? Meta-textual commentary? Post-modern critique? Alternate history interquel? I'd say all of the above. The deeper you dive in, the richer the kinship becomes.

Title: Elysium
Editor: Jennifer Marie Brissett
Publisher: Aqueduct Press

Science fiction is rife with alternate reality stories, in which fixed characters travel to parallel worlds where events have played out differently. But what if we had a single reality instead, and it was the characters themselves who were in flux, shifting in name, appearance, gender, sexual orientation, and so on? That's the fascinating premise behind Brissett's Philip K. Dick award-nominated debut, and she unquestionably does it justice.

To avoid giving you their various names, I'm simply going to call the protagonists A and A. During the novel's first few chapters two things become clear: 1) some kind of AI or computer program is responsible for the constant rewriting of events we're witnessing; 2) no matter how strange the setting, a deep connection binds A and A. The novel's jacket announces that "A computer program etched into the atmosphere has a story to tell," and as you may imagine this relates to item 1. But why is it telling its story, who is it telling it to, and how do A and A figure in it?

To find out, a little patience is required. One of Brissett's narrative strengths is the visceral immediacy of her scenes, wrought through attention to physical detail and sparse prose. The rhythms of urban life and decay are compellingly conjured. Characters -- even when we've caught on to the fact that they probably won't be around for long, at least in their current incarnations -- are absorbing. But this succession of gritty scenes, each with its tunnel vision and emphasis on existential problems, doesn't seem to be getting us nearer to an understanding of the underlying forces at work in their world.

At least, not at first. If we pay close attention we're rewarded. Details that carry from one scene to the next eventually pave the way for much larger revelations, and subsequent time jumps put all the strangeness into perspective. The last few chapters make clear exactly what is happening.

I like the novel's mosaic, hall-of-mirrors structure. The closest example I can think of is the relatively obscure Vain Art of the Fugue (1973 Fr; Eng translation 2007) by Romanian writer Dumitru Tsepeneag, who similarly keeps changing his characters and reshuffling a few basic actions into a plethora of permutations. But Elysium is not ultimately about formal experimentation; its structure serves a plot-related purpose, and the link between A and A transcends particulars, keeping us emotionally invested throughout.

Some of the novel's passages are quite striking, and it's jam-packed with ideas, some of them probably familiar to sf readers. The notion that changing the code of a computer program could rewrite reality, for example, evokes cyberpunk texts, and of course The Matrix (1999). A "dust" virus that causes characters to sprout wings leads to a scene in which they take to the skies and explore ancient, abandoned buildings, which reminded me a bit of Robert Silverberg's Nightwings (1968). And the combination of same-but-different-events, powerful behind-the-scenes forces, and urban angst, made me think of Jack Skillingstead's Life on the Preservation (2013), which was also nominated for a PKD award.

Make no mistake, though, this astutely-crafted novel is entirely Brissett's creation. Her unique voice, elegant narrative structure and pared-down prose result in something fresh and innovative. This is a post-apocalyptic love story in which neither apocalypse nor love are what you expect.

Read more by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro

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