Completed 6/29/2019, Reviewed 6/29/2019
Geoff Ryman’s imagination is quite a force. In this book, he has imagined a bizarre dystopian future which he explains at the beginning in about four pages. Then he goes on to create a strange novel based on this world in the next four hundred. It’s an interesting form, building a world quickly and then setting a story in it. The story however, is as complex as his world. This is not a quick book. It takes effort and concentration to understand what’s going on, and in the end, I don’t know if I got it all. But I found it to be beautifully written, and enjoyed what I could grasp of the complex plot. It won the Arthur C. Clarke and John W. Campbell awards for science fiction in 1990.
The book takes place in a future London after a world-wide communist revolution. There is a hive mind called the Consensus which is created by Reading the minds of all children at the age of ten. At this time, all socially unacceptable behavior is destroyed. Unfortunately, this includes all talent and imagination. Also, cancer has been cured, but the cure has cut the average lifespan to the age of thirty-five. To make people mature more quickly, they are infected with viruses that impart all the knowledge they’d ever need. This, in combination with being Read, creates a population that knows a lot but has no passion or appreciation for knowledge and particularly, the arts.
Milena is an enigma. As a child, she was immune to the viruses so she had to learn on her own and at ten she wasn’t Read. She goes through early life feeling less than. She is placed in life as an actress, but has no real passion for it. Everything is rote for the other actors and for the children they perform for. They do not appreciate the plays she performs. One day, she meets a genetically engineered human, in the form of a polar bear, so created to be able to work in the Antarctic. GE’s are not infected with viruses and are not read. This polar bear person, named Rolfa, loves to sing opera and secretly sets literature to music. Milena befriends Rolfa and falls in love with her, but their love is never actualized. She discovers Dante’s “The Divine Comedy” set to music and sets out to orchestrate and direct a holographic production of it in the sky. But in the process of getting it produced, Rolfa gets Read and loses her talent and is cured of her lesbian orientation.
The form of the book is almost as complex as the world-building and the plot. It’s divided into two books. The first book is fairly straight-forward. It follows Milena as she meets and loses Rolfa, stops being an actress, and begins being a director. The second book is more convoluted. Its timeline is non-linear as Milena remembers her childhood and works on getting the opera produced. I was very fortunate to have read a review of the book that pointed this out, so I was prepared for the effort required to follow the multiple plot threads through the jumping timeline. However, it was still pretty difficult to follow. This second book is the section where it requires a lot of effort to keep up with the subplots.
My only complaint with the book is that there was a strange relationship between Milena and her first choice as lighting designer for the opera. After not choosing her to do the lighting production, the woman stalks and harasses Milena through holographic projections. At first it made me angry, which I believe was the intended response to the scene. But then I became quite bored with it as it dragged on. The harassment gets worse and worse, but it didn’t seem to have anything to do with the rest of the book, and these scenes were very long. I eventually became annoyed with it, wanting desperately to get back to the other subplots. Without this, I think the book would have been about fifty pages shorter and I would have maybe had a better chance of keeping the other subplots straight in my head.
Otherwise, the book is beautifully written, building this complex world with wonderful word and expression choices. Ryman’s imagination was simply amazing to me. I give this book four stars out of five. I think this book would be lost on hard-core science fiction fans because the plot is so out there, but I think it is one of the most creative dystopias I’ve ever encountered in my reading.