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August and September Favourites

I’ve still been reading a favourite book each month. But I was a bit too busy in August to write up something on that month’s book, Metrophage by Richard Kadrey. So I decided to roll it into the write-up of September’s book, Paul Park’s Coelestis. And here they both are…

Richard Kadrey’s Metrophage has been described as “one of the quintessential 1980s cyberpunk novels”, and yet it seems to have slipped below the radar of most sf readers. It has neither the profile of William Gibson’s Neuromancer, nor Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, and yet I believe it is better than both. Neuromancer was the seminal cyberpunk novel, and that can’t be taken away from it. But I’d argue that Metrophage did something just as important.

Jonny Qabbala is a drug pusher in Los Angeles. He is also an ex-member of the Committee for Public Safety. When Jonny’s connection, Raquin, is murdered, Jonny heads off to confront the killer, Easy Money… and promptly finds himself caught in the middle of a battle for Los Angeles – between the Committee for Public Safety, drug lord Conover, and the anarchist Croakers. In this future, the US went bankrupt and was bought up by the Japanese. Who are now at war with the New Palestine Federation (shades of The Centauri Device).

Jonny spends time with each of the three factions – not always by choice – but is entirely powerless to prevent events from unfolding. There are puzzles embedded in the plot – the mysterious leprosy-like disease raging through the city, the Alpha Rats on the Moon… Metrophage resolves these by putting Jonny in position to have the truth explained to him. It helps that he has contacts in each of the three factions – and even more so that he is seen as important to the plans of at least two of the factions. Kadrey takes the reader on a wild ride through his Los Angeles – alternately wasteland and near-future neon-soaked wonderland. Clues dropped here and there help explain the resolution. There are a couple of points I couldn’t quite figure out – the game Conover plays with Jonny using a copy (or original) of Gainsborough’s Blue Boy, for example. But plenty of other elements of the novel have been subsequently become well-known tropes in the language of science fiction.

Despite that, Metrophage reads as fresh today as it did twenty years ago. Few books – even cyberpunk ones – can claim to have avoided dating over two decades. But then, Metrophage is more than just a cyberpunk novel. If Neuromancer folded noir into science fiction, then Metrophage folded cyberpunk back into science fiction. I’ve always maintained that cyberpunk effectively ended with the publication of Metrophage, and after my recent reread I see no reason to change my mind. Metrophage is cyberpunk – although it features no cyberspace or hackers. Metrophage is science fiction.

I didn’t expect Metrophage to lose its place on my list of favourites, and my reread not only proved that but reminded me why it was a favourite. It’s a great book.

And after Kadrey, another book I didn’t expect to be dislodged from the list. However, its appeal is, perhaps, more personal. Paul Park first appeared with the Starbridge Chronicles – Soldiers of Paradise, Sugar Rain and The Cult of Loving Kindness – an ambitious science fiction trilogy set on a world with seasons which last centuries, much like Brian Aldiss’ Helliconia trilogy. From the first page of that trilogy, it was clear that Park was a distinctive voice. And his follow-up, Coelestis, more than proved it. In some respects, Coelestis remains unique in the genre. And that’s not an easy accomplishment.

Simon Mayaram is attached to the British Consulate on the only colony world on which an alien race was discovered, homo coelestis. These aliens were actually two races – Demons, and the Aboriginals, who the Demons had telepathically enslaved. The humans hunted the Demons to extinction, and freed the Aboriginals. Who now ape humanity – the rich members of the race undergo comprehensive surgery, and require a strict regimen of drugs, in order to appear and behave human. Katharine Styreme is one such Aboriginal. To all intents and appearances, she is a beautiful young human woman.

Simon is invited to a party given by a prominent member of the human community. Katharine – whom he has admired from afar – is also there, with her father Junius, a wealthy merchant. During the party, Aboriginal rebels attack, kill almost everyone and kidnap Simon and Katharine. Without her drugs, Katharine begins to revert to her alien nature – a process that is exacerbated by the presence among the rebels of the last surviving Demon. When human vigilantes attack the rebels, Simon and Katharine are forced to flee… and Katharine’s meagre grip on humanity begins to erode even further.

Coelestis is one of those science fiction novels which follows a logic all its own. It is, in a sense, post-rational. Although the story is set an indeterminate time in the future, the community to which Simon belongs bears an uncanny, and deliberate, resemblance to early Twentieth Century colonial British and American. Even the Aboriginals themselves – particularly the Styremes, who are made to appear human, and show no alien side – are hardly convincing in any scientific sense. Earth is described as a dying planet, and the colony planet has been cut off from its nearest neighbour. If there is an interstellar federation or empire, then it bears no resemblance to any other in the genre.

John Clute described Coelestis as a “Third World SF novel”. It’s sheer hubris on my part, but I think this is wrong. Coelestis is a post-colonial sf novel. It is clearly inspired by Park’s own years in India. And to call India a member of the Third World is to ignore its long and deep cultural heritage – and the Aboriginals (or rather, the Demons) are implied to have an equally long cultural heritage in Coelestis. The novel is not about living in a Third World analogue, it is about the gentle wind-down from colonialism and its often bloody consequences. Park makes as much clear in events described in the book. Mayaram is of Indian extraction (although born in the UK), and during his abduction by the Aboriginals, he rapes Katharine. It’s perhaps a somewhat  blunt metaphor for John Company and the Raj, but it makes the point. Even the Aboriginals’ attempt to ape human ways is a reflection of the Indian adoption of some elements of British culture – and especially the English language. The Aboriginals’ ersatz humanity is little more than surface – Katharine may resemble a young human woman, but whatever gender she possesses is what’s attached to her mimicry (the Aboriginals are actually one-sexed). She is not a viewpoint on the alien – Coelestis is a description of her fall from humanity, not of her imitation of it.

Having grown up in the Middle East, I find a particular appeal in novels such as Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet and Park’s Coelestis. To some extent, they remind me of my childhood. Both also have the added advantage of being novels which can be read many times – and there is always something new to find, or to think about, in them. I certainly plan to reread Coelestis again some time. Its place on my list of favourites is secure.

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