How to Make An SF Critic Very Happy: Oisin McGann, The Harvest Tide Project (Dublin: O'Brien Press, 2004).
The worst thing about keeping this blog is the amount of time I spend either whinging or giving grudging praise. It makes me feel like not a very nice person. I blogged Oisin McGann's first book, The Gods and Their Machines back in January and it was a rare moment of almost unalloyed praise. My only caveat was that the allegorical aspect of the book (children from either side of a political divide) was hard to overlook.
I have no such reservations with The Harvest Tide Project, although this is McGann's first book written before The Gods and their Machines was published.
I'm going to attempt a plot summary:
Taya and Lorkrin (sister and brother) are shape changers who accidentally pull down a stone pillar when they are playing with their uncle Emos's shape changing tools (more of that later). The pillar is holding up a wall which is holding in a bunch of scientists. They all wander out into the market place, but then are "rounded up" by soldiers. All except one, Shessil Groach, a botanist who has just made a breakthrough in the forced growth of a local plant. Shessil is actually a prisoner of a rather despotic regime, but he doesn't know it yet, and he casually wanders away and stumbles into various explorations. When he is recaptured, his captors don't realise who he is at first, which gives him quite a lot of opportunity to see what the world he lives in is actually like. Much of this story is about a very bright, very sheltered and niave man becoming politically aware.
Part of the story (and Shessil's adventures) are facilitated by Taya and Lorkrin's realisation that Shessil has gone off with one of their Uncle's tools by accident. This is where McGann is particularly convincing. In too many travel adventures, people join in because they are on the side of "right". Here, the original coming together of the protagnists is more like a screwball comedy where each has their own agenda. Taya and Lorkrin "liberate" Shessil because of what he carries. Hilspeth the scent carrier, just doesn't much like soldiers and when one hits her, she reacts and is forced to throw in her lot with people running the same way. Draegar gets drawn in because he recognizes the children of an old friend, and Emos, an exile from his own people because he survived an unsurvivable plague, has spent most of the book chasing after the children. All of them are slowly entangled in Shessil's growing awareness of what he is involved in. Although there is a key moment of recognition, the book is so powerful because no one tells Shessil anything, nor does he see anything truly horrific. It's just that he moves from being a scientist obsessed with pure science to being a scientist who begins to wonder what his work is being used for(85). Clearly the model here is the scientists of the Manhattan project.
All of the above is just good writing. What about the science fiction?
Some material is a little clumsily delivered, we get a short background lecture on Taya and Lorkrin as Myunan shapeshifters, "They both knew that their uncle would not use a normal catch for a hidden door. He would have built something that only a Myunen could open. Myunen flesh was unique in that it could be shaped and formed like modelling clay...." but while the second sentence is really uneccessary because in the following paragraph McGann shows this happening the first sentence is quietly brilliant, because it shows in this small opening (it's page 10) the consequences of Myunan powers for Myunan ways of thinking.
The whole shapeshifting thing is also a tour de force. Sherri Tepper was the last person to make this seem like a real bodily function, something to be practiced, something that is both an abiliity but also a variable talent. McGann's shapeshifters have maleable bodies, but they can't actually control the movement. For that they need tools.
"The boy seemed to be combing his ears back... with a comb." (32)
"Whipping out their tool kits, they quickly fashioned their fingertips into claws and clambered up the wall..." (34)
And their are limitations which the children meet by combining shapeshifting with brains: "Standing one child on top of another does not make the shape of an adult, however... Taya had increased the size of her head and even coloured her skin as if she were wearing make-up. She had lengthened her arms, at the same time making her legs much smaller and thinner. leaving them just strong enough to allow her to keep her balance on Lorkrin's shoulders. Lorkrin had flattened his head to conceal it under the cloak, shortened his body and lengthened his legs so that he could stride like someone twice his height." (116) When later they want to fly, they reason that bad shapes can be morphed into--feathers are much too complicated and flying is more than about shape changing "a person needed first to achieve a suitable form, and then to grasp the principles of flying itself."(143 and 144).
Perspective is done well: McGann switches from character to character and with each he keeps hold of a firm sense of their personality and species. Lorkin muses on the brittleness of humans.
There are some very funny touches, a court case that is meant to be fixed against the defendant but which collapses because the judge keeps fining the witnesses for their bad grammar (1130--corruption canceling out corruption.
The description of the tyrant, Rak El Namen is well done: he is a man ambitious for his own country and fascinated by science. He doesn't think of other species as human, but he is no cackling evil villain, his evil is contextualised. "He said the war with the Katharic Peaks would soon be fought and won, and that with that victory would come a time of peace. Science would take its rightful place over the traditions of old. Used wisely, it would put an end to hunger... " (148) and while he makes his workforce labour seven days a week he pays just wages.
McGann doesn't explore all the questions he poses, but each one is a planted seed, some political and some scientific. Most of the "downloads" are posed in a "we should ask questions about this" kind of way. The entire trajectory of the novel is about what happens when Shessil stops asking questions about plants and asks questions first about politics, and then about plants and politics.
If I carry on I'll give away too many of the good bits, and for once I really want you all to go buy this novel. What struck me most in the end was how complex Harvest Tide is, without being complicated. As the story spirals it does so in ways that make contextual sense, and not just because a desperate author needed another "... and then."