Friday, April 01, 2005

The World is Shivering: Ann Halam, Siberia (London: Orion, 2005).

I've read Ann Halam's other sf, but I've always preferred the books she writes for the adult market (under the name Gwyneth Jones). This time round I happened to have read her newest adult sf novel, Life about three weeks before I picked up Siberia . Life won the Philip K. Dick Award last week, and while I have some issues with the portrayal of University life (which is about fifteen years out of date) it is a really masterful discussion of how science, scientific thinking, and the whole process of argument and experiment proceeds. It's in these areas precisely that I think Siberia , while not necessarily a better novel, is more gripping.

Halam uses some of the things I've been saying about child development to explore the differences between technology we use, and science which we understand. That isn't her aim by the way: in some ways this is a classic eco-agenda novel, but because it has this argument running underneath Halam can maintain a tension in the novel which prevents it ever becoming over didactic, and her choice of a growing child described by the adult she grows into also lets her show the development of understanding, and the mismatch between adult explanation and child comprehension.

But to the novel. It starts with Rosita remembering her arrival in a Settlement camp with her mother. She is four years old and she remembers nothing before then. Her moment of Wakening is the realisation that her shoes are too thin for the hard packed snow beneath her.

One strand of the story is Rosita growing up in the Settlement, joining the school, hardening herself to her surroundings and becoming "Sloe", named for a hard and bitter berry. Sloe will eventually be sent to a rehabilltation school where she will inadvertantly betray her mother--her mother has broken the law by teaching her science--and eventually is expelled, at which point she returns home only to have to escape from the local gangs and the police carrying something they seem to want, the small walnut shell and tools that let her make Lindquists.

The Lindquists are the second strand of the story and they are where Halam has produced something very special, for this strand is told as a braid of mother love, fairy tale and science. Rosita/Sloe discovers the Lindquists when she spies on her mother "doing magic" one night. When one of the tiny kits escapes it develops into a squirrel like being that stays her friend for a year. Nivvy is much mourned when he dies, and this elegaic note is held throughout story. Nivvy remains a presence without ever becoming sentimentalised.

Rosita's mother, aware that her time might be running out, teaches Rosita how to maintain the Lindquists and what they are--compressed DNA that can express in many forms. This is one of the most important aspects of what Halam does. A lesser writer would have written this as the passing on of true knowledge and understanding. Halam does no such thing, instead, from early on we get, through Rosita's eyes, the accumulation of misconception and mis-reasoning. Rosita, as she realises herself by the time she is eight, spins the technology she witnesses into magic and fairy tale. The making of the Lindquists in their nutshell, their transformation into magical creatures, mutates into the Czech version of Cinderella. When the older child, Sloe, goes on the run with the Lindquists, she has to return to the recreation of first principles, dredging her memory for what her mother told her and what the policeman Yagin reveals about the various classes of animals so that she can learn to manipulate the "magic" to produce the right animal to aid and abet her.

At various stages through the novel we see this movement from the magical explanation to the scientific, and it is always handled with great delicacy. We don't realise Sloe thinks the animals' love for her is a magical bequest, until she is told that they are genetically keyed to her. Anything that looks like a fairytale (the bright clothes and friendly manners of the traders who save Sloe from the ice and blizzard), is eventually revealed to be something else, a part of a greater complexity of being.

Surrounding all of this tale is a story of a world genetically damaged, covered in ice and snow, in which human survival is bought at the expense of the animal world and in which the protection of the environment has become increasingly difficult as people have forgotten what it is they are protecting. "Natural" is no longer "familiar.

The novel has two endings, which address some of what we've been discussing about how an sf novel should end. One ending is Sloe's reunion with her mother after a trek across the ice that reminded me of the Genly Ai's journey in THe Left Hand of Darkness for its sheer power. The second ending however moves us out again, shows us Sloe leaving home to start a new life--there is a reunion with an old (male) friend but nothing is decided and their relationship seems to serve as a metaphor for the seeds Sloe carries, not the other way around.


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