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An Unexpected Challenge

The last Friday of the month, and the sf group decided to have a literary evening for the monthly meeting. We had to take along something we’d read in the last six months which impressed us. This proved harder than I’d thought it would be. The most impressive books I read during 2007 were rereads (my 2007 reading challenge). And while some others might have fit the bill, they didn’t do so in a way that I could get across by reading out a short excerpt. Besides, most sf writers aren’t great stylists, so there’s not much that’s going to wow people at a sentence-level.

After much thought, I picked a short story by Keith Roberts: ‘The Lake of Tuonela’. It was first published in 1973 in New Writings in SF 23, edited by Kenneth Bulmer, although I’d read it in Roberts’ collection, The Grain Kings. I chose the story because I think it has some lovely prose in it. It’s not Roberts’ best-known story – that would be ‘Weihnachtsabend’ – but I feel it is a better one.

Mathis is a member of the Terran colony on Xerxes. Although the Terrans (Brits in all but name) have only been on the world for a generation, the technology they have brought has completely changed the natives’ way of life. For example, the ancient and extensive canal network they previously used for transport has fallen into disuse. And the culture of the Boatmen, or Kalti, who lived and worked on the canals is in danger of disappearing.

Mathis gets permission to traverse the continent by canal boat – to both experience the Kalti culture firsthand, and to demonstrate that the canals are still viable. The trip is not a success, although Mathis finds himself at peace for the first time at its conclusion.

Obviously, I can’t quote the entire story, much as I would like to. However, here are a couple of very short extracts. This first one describes the entrance to the canal tunnel system beneath the Antiel range:

The opening itself was horseshoe-shaped, its throat densely black. From fifty yards he smelled its breath, ancient, and chill. Mathis rubbed his face, then swung to the cabin top to start the generator.

This was the Tunnel of Hy Antiel.

This next one is within the tunnel, through which they travel for two days:

For some time now a deeper roar had been growing in intensity. He saw its source finally; a curtain of clear water, sparkling as it fell from the roof. At its base the surface boiled and rippled, throwing up wavering banks of brownish foam.

This was the fourth airshaft he had seen.

Roberts’ description of the canal boat’s journey through the long tunnel of Hy Antiel to the titular lake is very effective. He manages to evoke both the claustrophobia of the tunnel and the boredom of travelling through unrelenting darkness. When the boat enters the lake, Roberts successfully evokes both its great age and the marvel of its construction.

Like Paul Park’s Coelestis (see here), I would call ‘The Lake of Tuonela’ post-colonial science fiction. There is that same sense of Empire’s fading light, as sensitivity to other cultures begins to chip away at the ruthless expediencies of keeping an empire running. And, in common with many British sf stories and novels of the 1960s and 1970s, there is a considered and literate feel to the prose. Mathis, for instance, does not gurn or grimace. His emotional state is not told to the reader; it is instead conveyed through his thoughts, actions, and dialogue.

I don’t know that I’ve done ‘The Lake of Tuonela’ much justice in this post. Judging by the sf group’s reactions, I don’t know that I did it much justice at the meeting. But perhaps that’s just me. It’s an excellent story, and worth seeking out.

This is unrelated to Keith Roberts’ story but… the day after the meeting, I received an email telling me a message was waiting for moderation on the writing group mailing list. The subject was “glasshouse”, which was the title of the book (Charles Stross’ Glasshouse) I was reading and had had with me at the sf group meeting. Except the message was… spam.

They’re getting fiendishly clever those spambots, you know…

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