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All Those Vanished Engines, Paul Park

I’ve been a fan of Park’s fiction since first reading Coelestis (1993), a copy of which I bought in 1994 in a book shop I used to frequent when I lived in Abu Dhabi. It has been a favourite genre novel ever since. Over the years since, I’ve tracked down copies of his other books – first editions, natch – and read them. So when I learnt he had a new novel due, six years after the fourth and final book of the Princess of Roumania quartet, The Hidden World (2008), well, I was pretty excited. I discovered the book actually comprised three linked novellas, one of which had originally appeared in F&SF in January 2010 under the title ‘Ghost Doing the Orange Dance’, but had then been revised and published by PS Publishing in January 2013 under the same title. I’d read the PS version early in 2014, and even nominated it for a Hugo. There was also a short story, which shared the title of the new novel, that had originally been commissioned to accompany a sound installation by Stephen Vitiello at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in September 2011.


Clearly, All Those Vanished Engines the novel was going to be something of a fix-up. And if Ghosts Doing the Orange Dance was any indication, it was also going to meta-fictional. Fix-ups fell out of favour several decades ago, but they were very popular during science fiction’s first few decades. AE van Vogt’s entire novel output, for example, is arguably comprised of fix-up novels. But as both the market for short genre fiction and genre novels has changed, so fix-ups have become increasingly rare. But All Those Vanished Engines is actually not much like a fix-up novel. Nor is it like another well-known science fiction novel comprised of three linked novellas, Gene Wolfe’s The Fifth Head of Cerberus (1972). Or indeed much like another sf novel of three novellas, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Icehenge (1984). Chiefly because All Those Vanished Engines is not much like a novel as such.

All Those Vanished Engines opens with the line,” Maybe the first part of the story would be called The Bracelet, or else Bracelets would turn out to be the better name”. In point of fact, we already know it is called ‘Bracelets’ – the title is given on the preceding page. The bracelet which supplies the title for Paulina’s story is comprised of “intertwining strands”. Which is a not only a fair description of ‘Bracelets’ the novella, but also the novel as a whole. And the use of the name Paulina is also telling. Not only is it a female version of the author’s name, Paul, but Park used it himself as a pen-name on a Forgotten Realms tie-in novel for Wizards of the Coast, The Rose of Sarifal, as by Paulina Claiborne and published in May 2012. The writing of The Rose of Sarifal also features in All Those Vanished Engines‘ second novella.

Paulina lives in an alternate 1881, and she is writing a story set in 1967 – “Paulina had a habit of slipping away into an invented world over which she might pretend to have control” –  in a form of fractured English, featuring a boy called Matthew. As Paulina’s story progresses, her world and Matthew’s world begin to intertwine, so much so that Paulina’s own life’takes on the form of the sort of story she is imagining for Matthew. An assassin gatecrashes the United Daughters of the Confederacy’s Mardi Gras ball and kills many of those present. Paulina is rescued by her cousin, Colonel Adolphus Claiborne, CSA, who reveals she is the daughter of the Yankee empress, and the assassin, Lizzie, is her clone, and that he plans to use Paulina in an assassination plot against the empress. But Paulina escapes, meets up with Matthew, and the two end up hiding from an invasion of Wellesian Martians… By two-thirds of the way through ‘Bracelets’, the two narratives – Paulina’s real adventures, and her invented ones – have become so entangled, we’re no longer sure if the protagonist is Paulina or Matthew. The world of the story seems to have changed to accommodate Paulina’s inventions; she has lost control of her invented world.

The second novella is titled ‘Three Visits to a Nursing Home’, and it opens with the line: “This is how the second part begins…” There then follows the text of the short story from the MASS MoCA sound installation. After that is an explanation of the origin of the short story, in which Park himself describes how he met Vitiello and offered him “a list of rhetorical devices, from which he chose onomatopoeia and, to a lesser extent, strategic repetition”. (This is clearly a joke – the story is to accompany a sound installation, after all.) At the opening of the exhibit, Park meets a woman who tells him that the subject of his story is still alive, and living in a nursing home. She also reveals that she was a student of Park’s late mother, and likely met Park when he was a teenager. Park goes on to write The Rose of Sarifal for Wizards of the Coast, and to first take, and then teach, creative writing at a local college. In his class is a woman called Traci, who is writing a novel which Park realises is a thinly-disguised version of Traci’s relationship with Park’s mother, which echoes Constance’s relationship mentioned earlier. In Traci’s book, Park himself is called Matthew. Park discusses her novel with her, making suggestions regarding technique that he himself is using in the narrative of All Those Vanished Engines.

The sound installation is real, The Rose of Sarifal is an actual published Forgotten Realms novel, Park does indeed teach writing, albeit science fiction (at Williams College, Williamstown, Massachusetts, according to Wikipedia). Some of the biographical details of Park’s life – a mother who was a published literary professor, a partner whose mother was born in Bucharest, an autistic sister – may also be true, although which is which cannot be determined without further extra-textual knowledge (in a 2000 interview on infinity plus, for example, Park mentions that his mother taught literature). But then the three poles of ‘Three Visits to a Nursing Home’ are entirely extra-textural – the sound installation, The Rose of Sarifal, and Park’s own life. Just as Paulina and Matthew’s lives are intertwined in ‘Bracelets’, so are Paul’s and Matthew’s in this novella – and again, in both narratives, one world is presented as fictional (Paulina’s “invented world”, Traci’s novel), while the other is the first-order fictional narrative of the novel we are reading, which contains sufficient actuality to nail it into place in the real world.

The final novella is ‘Ghosts Doing the Orange Dance’, and the title is a reference to a painting which Park, the narrator, believes represents his grandfather’s encounter with extraterrestrials. The story itself is about Park’s family, his parents and grandparents, and their ancestors (the PS Publishing edition helpfully includes a family tree). It opens with a potted history, and the telling admission that “every memoirist and every historian should begin by reminding their readers that the mere act of writing something down … involves a clear betrayal of the truth”, which echoes the opening to Ursula K Le Guin’s The Left Hand Of Darkness (1969): “I’ll make my report as if I told a story, for I was taught as a child on my homeworld that Truth is a matter of the imagination” (Park’s novel, Coelestis, it is worth noting, covers broadly similar ground, both conceptually and in terms of the physical journey by the two main characters, to The Left Hand Of Darkness).

As Park discusses his family’s history, so he reveals more of his own circumstances – and they do not entirely match those given in ‘Three Visits to a Nursing Home’. In this novella, for example, Park takes a class in writing meta-fiction, his partner is different, his sister is called Katy not Elly, and the novel from Park’s real-world oeuvre he makes mention of is A Princess of Roumania (2005). As the story progresses, it is slowly revealed that this is not the world we know, but a near-future dystopia, which ends with an invasion by the dead in a chilling link back to the first novella of the novel. Park spends much of his time untangling the lives of his ancestors, chiefly to understand the meaning behind the titular painting. But he also spends a lot of time in Second Life, a real-world online virtual world – which, in this novella, forms the overtly fictional world, much as Matthew’s and Traci’s do in the earlier two novellas.

There are so many references to Park’s actual oeuvre in All Those Vanished Engines – not just obvious ones, clearly linked in the text to earlier novels; but also characters named for characters in other of his novels. Then there is Park’s own life, and the mirror images of it which are presented in two of the three novellas. As Dire Straits famously sang, “Two men say they’re Jesus / One of them must be wrong”. Except both Parks in All Those Vanished Engines are plainly not the real Park. They are as much a fiction as the invented worlds, as much a fiction as the presentation of the act of creating those invented worlds.

To describe All Those Vanished Engines as “meta-fiction” feels like labelling any random novel as “a work of fiction”. It misses the extent and – to steal a phrase from Frank Zappa – the “interconnectedness of all things” within the three novellas. However, what makes this novel even more astonishing is that it seems likely it was not originally conceived as a whole. Park has taken elements of his own recent history and knitted them into a work of fiction on the nature of fiction and the act of creating it. The end result is as much about writing genre fiction as it is about the history of the Parks and Claibornes back to 1664. The writing, as you would expect from Park, is lucid, often elegant, and a pleasure to read. All Those Vanished Engines is one of the best genre novels I have read this year, if not for several years. But its very nature means it is unlikely to noticed by the various genre awards (although perhaps the Nebula will shortlist it).

I am myself extremely fond of re-engineering narrative structures in fiction; and of, well, I suppose “pile-driving” is perhaps the best description, the foundations of a story into the real world. I like that everything in a work of genre fiction can be Googled, that the elements used within a story have this extra dimension provided by the real world, a richness that cannot be contained within the pages of a short story, novella or novel. All Those Vanished Engines does both of these, but it also takes it a step further – some of those piles stretch down into Park’s own novels, giving a bedrock of actual published fiction on which the stories in All Those Vanished Engines securely rest. This is a novel which can be reread, and in which a fresh read will always find something new – because as your knowledge of Park in the real world grows, perhaps by reading some of his other novels, so too will that knowledge enrich your reading of All Those Vanished Engines.

And that’s quite a remarkable achievement.


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Books from my collection: Park and Robson

Back in the 1990s I was in a BSFA Orbiter with Justina Robson, so when her first novel was published I bought it. I’d already seen some of its chapters, so I knew it was good. I continued to buy Justina’s novels because I know she’s an excellent writer and she rarely disappoints.

Paul Park became one of my favourite authors after I read Coelestis – which remains a favourite sf novel to this day (see here). I subsequently tracked down copies of his debut trilogy, The Starbridge Chronicles, and then his small press novels. When the Princess of Roumania quartet was announced, I was a little disappointed that he had turned to fantasy, and what appeared to be YA fantasy at that. But I bought the books, read them – and they’re not YA, they’re actually one of the best fantasy series of this century.

Silver Screen and Mappa Mundi. Both were shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award, which is a pretty damn impressive achievement.

Natural History and its loose sequel Living Next Door to the God of Love. Though I’d have said Natural History was a better novel than Silver Screen or Mappa Mundi, it wasn’t shortlisted for the Clarke. It did make the shortlist for the BSFA Award, however; as did Living Next Door to the God of Love.

The Quantum Gravity, or Lila Black, quintet – Keeping It Real, Selling Out, Down to the Bone, Going Under and Chasing the Dragon. I plan to read all five some time this summer as a reading project. Watch this space.

Justina’s only collection to date, Heliotrope, was published by Australian small press Ticonderoga to celebrate her appearance as GoH at the Australian National SF Convention in Perth this year. It’s a shame that one of the UK’s best sf writer’s only collection has to be published on the other side of the planet. My edition is the signed and numbered edition. Adam Roberts wrote the introduction.

The Starbridge Chronicles: Soldiers of Paradise, Sugar Rain and The Cult of Loving Kindness. There is a SFBC omnibus edition of the first two books, The Sugar Festival, which I’ve not seen. The trilogy is set on a world which, like Aldiss’ Helliconia, has seasons which are generations long.

The US and UK editions of Coelestis. The UK edition predates the US one by two years. Not sure why I have both. As I recall, the only first edition I could initially find was the US one, so I bought it. But at the 2005 Worldcon I found a copy of the UK edition, which I bought so Paul Park could sign for me. Which he did.

No Traveller Returns is a novella from PS Publishing. Park has another due late this year, Ghost Doing the Orange Dance (originally published in F&SF in February last year). If Lions Could Speak is a short story collection. The Gospel of Corax describes the life of an alternate theosophical Jesus. Three Marys is also set in Biblical Palestine. Perversely, copies of these three small press books appear to be more readily available than those of the Starbridge Chronicles.

A Princess of Roumania, The Tourmaline, The White Tyger and The Hidden World are one of the best fantasy series I’ve read in recent years.


Read this book!

The first programme item I was on at Illustrious, the 2010 Eastercon last weekend, was “Read This Book”. It was, however, cancelled, perhaps because it was scheduled against the BSFA Awards. I can’t say I’m too upset about the cancellation – and the Award Ceremony is one of the few Eastercon programme items I make a point of attending. Also worth noting is that even by Saturday afternoon, right up to the point where I learnt the panel was cancelled, I had no real idea which novel I was going to urge the audience to read…

But right now, on this day of this year, with the benefit of hindsight and more thought than I was capable of during Illustrious, I am going to imagine that the novel I would have chosen for the panel, that the novel I would have chosen until another one comes along and completely blows me away, is actually, er, two novels. And, given what I have written about science fiction on this blog over the past couple of years, they are choices that may surprise people. (Having said that, people who know me also know how much I love these two novels.)

The first one is…

My absolute favourite science fiction novel is Coelestis by Paul Park. I demand rigour in my science fiction. If you can change the background, and the story remains unchanged, then it isn’t sf. Yet Coelestis is completely unconvincing as sf. It is defiantly not-sf science fiction. And that is one reason why it is so brilliant. It is also beautifully written, and extremely unsettling.

Simon Mayaram, a junior consular official, has recently arrived on a tide-locked colony world distant from Earth. At the orders of his boss, he reluctantly takes the consul’s place at a party thrown by the local colonial movers and shakers at Goldstone Lodge. Also present is Junius Styreme and his beautiful daughter, Katharine. The Styremes are aliens, members of one of the two races native to the planet. Prior to the arrival of humanity, they were enslaved by the planet’s other race, the Demons. The humans wiped out the Demons and freed the aliens. Now the aliens show their gratitude – the rich ones, at least – by using drugs and surgery to become human. But not everyone feels the same way. A group of rebels attacks Goldstone Lodge, killing all those present. Except Simon and Katharine. They escape but are quickly captured. The rebels take them across to the planet’s dark side, where they discover a surviving Demon holds the rebels in thrall. The Demon, and the loss of her drugs, slowly returns Katharine to her alien nature. As Simon, who loves her, watches in horror…

John Clute has described Coelestis as a “Third World” novel, but to me it is very definitely post-colonial sf. It is also anti-colonial. The world of the novel doesn’t map exactly onto India – or any other ex-Empire colony – but the parallels are clear. The life-style enjoyed by the humans is very like that of the British in the Raj. The desire of the aliens to mimic their masters bears some similarities with the way India has subsumed elements of British culture – such as the language (which remains the nearest the country has to an official language). Park makes these likenesses even starker by refusing to invent a society for his world. It is the twentieth century in all but name – although there are intriguing hints of a future Earth beyond the characters’ understanding. But for the aliens, the first section of Coelestis could be set in Mayapore.

But once Simon and Katharine find themselves on the dark side, the nature of the story changes. Whereas Park had initially used the colonials-in-situ, and their struggle to remain inappropriate, as commentary, he uses Katharine and Simon in captivity to first deconstruct the identity of the aliens, and then to deconstruct Simon’s identity. It makes for an discomfiting read. Coelestis uses its limited toolbox of science-fictional conceits to address only those areas Park wants to study. The rest is immaterial, and so no attempt at rigorous or plausible world-building is made. It’s not there because it doesn’t matter, because not having it there points up all the more the difference between the aliens and the humans, and humanity’s actions.

Coelestis is not a comfortable read. But it is one of those science fiction novels which can change the way you look at the world. And there are remarkably few of them.

My second choice could only be science fiction. Unlike Coelestis, it has rigour. But I also demand authenticity in my sf. Take Back Plenty by Colin Greenland is proudly inauthentic, it glories in its lack of authenticity. Its story takes place in a Solar system that only ever existed in wildly unscientific pulp science fiction. It features canals on Mars, a Venus of impenetrable jungles, and a cast of colourful aliens. It is a clever postmodern space opera and a rollicking good read.

Tabitha Jute is captain of the space barge Alice Liddell. While on Mars, Tabitha inadvertently causes a near-riot, and is subsequently fined by the authorities. But she doesn’t have the money to pay the fine. Fortunately, she meets up with Marco Metz, leader of the cabaret act Contraband, and he contracts her to take him and his band to Titan. First, they stop off at Plenty, an alien artefact orbiting Earth. It had been built by the alien Frasque, but they’d been booted out of the Solar System by the Capellans – highly advanced aliens who’d bootstrapped humanity into space, but now kept everyone sealed within the orbit of Pluto.

Of course, Contraband isn’t really a cabaret act and Tabitha is forced to flee Plenty with the members of the band. They crash-land on Venus, are rescued by pirates, and then delivered to the Capellans.

To say anymore would give away the novel’s climax.

The story of Take Back Plenty is told by a mysterious, and not entirely reliable, narrator – complete with authorial interventions. Sections of the book are also interspersed with conversations between Tabitha and Alice, the space barge’s AI persona. These conversations round out Tabitha’s background and character. They also help explain the Solar system of the story. Tabitha Jute is one of the great female characters of science fiction. She is not feisty, she is not kick-ass. She is not strong because she was raped as a young woman; she is no one’s Perfect Girlfriend. In a book which revels in its inauthenticity, she is stunningly real.

When Take Back Plenty was published in 1990, I remember there being a lot of talk about it. It went onto win both the BSFA and Arthur C Clarke Awards. I’ve argued in the past that it kicked off the British New Space Opera movement. But the more I think about it, the more I think that’s not the case. Take Back Plenty re-appropriated the tropes of pulp space opera, but it used them in a knowing and postmodern way. It didn’t add hard science or “grit” to space opera. It added realness, yes, and dirt under science fiction’s fingernails; but its tropes were still the candy-coloured conceits of early space opera. By doing this, the novel privileged story, not setting –  yet another difference to New Space Opera. So much so, in fact, that Take Back Plenty even aped those old serials by giving poor Tabitha no actual control over the plot.

On its publication, Take Back Plenty promised a new and exciting trend in British science fiction. Sadly, that never materialised. Greenland’s novel was a one-off. He followed it with a pair of sequels, Seasons of Plenty and Mother of Plenty; but the vision had soured and neither matched the joy of Take Back Plenty. Greenland wrote one other sf novel, Harm’s Way, a steampunk space opera, but has written no novel-length science fiction since. Which is a shame.

So there you have it. Two science fiction novels I love and admire. (Science fiction novels I love but don’t admire would be a much longer list.) Sadly, both are currently out of print. Obviously I think they should be on the SF Masterworks list – assuming rights are available and all that. I urge everyone to seek out second-hand copies of these two books and read them. Or perhaps an enterprising ebook publisher might like to consider editions on Kindle (providing the authors are willing, of course).

Coelestis and Take Back Plenty are a pair of novels I am happy to champion. And I can even do that without feeling embarrassed they’re science fiction.


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.