Friday, August 12, 2005

Where have all the SF Writers gone (into fantasy, that's where): Susan Price, Coming Down to Earth (London: Harper Collins, 1994)

I'm guessing, because I can't find corroborating evidence, but I think this is the Susan Price of The Sterkarm Handshake a book also on my list to read some time (I tried once and failed) because it is technically sf.

Coming Down to Earth is simple and brilliantly executed. Price could run a class on how to write sf (and if I can find multiple copies of this short novel I might use it to teach).

Azalin lives in a space station, and when the story starts is on a three day visit to earth. Unhappy at home (particularly with the constant injunctions to be "sporting" when she doesn't get what she wants) she takes the opportunity to run away, and hooks up with a bunch of street entertainers and thieves straight out of Dickens.

What is so good about this book is that Price makes the station very real and familiar (it's the place most known to the pov characters) and estranges us from Earth which is not quite the place we know. Nice touches are simple things like varying Azalin's experiences--she sees Earth as a tourist (rather like a controlled tour I once took in the old GDR); from the workings of a theme park; and the slums and police policies from which visitors are usually kept clear. Price holds the pov firm so that Azalin remains muddled, but not helpless--we get neither the omni-competent/ clear sighted or alternatively completely helpess foreigner that people's too many of these "abandoned traveller" tales.

Price also sets it up that Azalin's rescue is only considered important because she is thought to be in the company of a very valuable runaway android--the relative powerlessness of the small space station compared with the way they view themselves (as a utopian colony in the wilderness) is nicely effected.

Too often with children's "rebellion in utopia" book, the utopia is written as if stupid or hateful, but here, too Price scores. Azalin can't be an electrician because the colony doesn't need any more. It's unpleasant, but Price makes it clear that it isn't actually unfair in terms of the colonies needs. So when Azalin does finally get returned (against her wishes) to the colony, she realises that the solution is not to over throw the system--which is necessary for the survival of the colony--but to emigrate to Mars, where they will need her skills.


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