This collection of stories is characterised by non-completion. By ellipses, gaps, loss of memory, tantalising hints of more, general incompleteness. In the stories themselves, in the people, in the world.
This turned out not to be the book I thought I was reading. Having adored The Islanders, I thought I was getting an earlier novel set in the same place. Uh, no. This is a set of short stories (including a couple of novellas): some set in the Dream Archipelago, some just referencing it. So I was quite discontent when I read the first ‘chapter’ – The Equatorial Moment – and accepted it as setting the premise for the book… and then realised that The Negation was quite separate, although with strong links. Don’t worry; I got over my disappointment.
“The Equatorial Moment” is not a story. It’s a vignette, explaining the very odd thing about this world: that there is a time vortex, which means it’s the same time everywhere on the world at the same time. It also means that flying somewhere is a rather difficult business. It also sets up that this world is experiencing a war, which – far more than issues to do with time – informs the entirety of this collection. “The Trace of Him” is also a vignette, of a lover and a funeral, that doesn’t really seem to fit the rest of the collection. It’s set in the Dream Archipelago, but that’s all.
Some of these stories are directly about the war, and its impact on soldiers and civilians. “The Negation” is framed around a draftee and his experiences, but also around an author whose art might be subverted by the war. (Its connection to the Dream Archipelago is tenuous – the novel that the soldier loves is set there.) This story was the first taste of incompleteness that flavours the rest, as Priest suggests and hints but does not fulfil. It’s marvellous. “Whores,” too, examines soldiers and civilians, through a different lens. This time the soldier has been granted leave due to sickness which manifests as synaesthesia; the civilians are women who have become whores because of the exigencies of war. This aspect, that the women are not simply whores but that they became such for real, usually economic reasons, and that they might also have other concerns, was a delight. Too often whores (and slaves) just exist in the same way that horses or dogs do, with no reference to what came before. So that worked. And there’s a tantalising question over whether the soldier in these two stories is the same man or not. The last story in the collection, “The Discharge,” also brings together art and war and ellipses. It’s the fullest exploration of the war that’s been affecting this world for a ridiculous amount of time, and makes it clear that ridiculous is exactly what it is. But then the narrator ends up in the Dream Archipelago, and starts exploring art… a type of art that has a genuinely visceral impact on its viewer by messing with the hypothalamus. And the story takes on a whole other layer and attacks a whole other idea. It’s maddening and glorious and a bit creepy.
You know that thing where you’re reading along, and you’ve been assuming something about the race, gender, location or attitude of a character and then something happens and you have to go back and read everything again to see whether you were stupid and made a mistake, or whether the author has been deliberately messing with you? That was “The Miraculous Cairn” for me. And I’m pretty sure the answer is the latter. It’s set half on the mainland and half on an island; half in the present and half in the past; and it’s a horror story. One of those slow, creeping horror stories that might not be a horror story but probably is. Gave me the shivers, anyway, and is the exemplar of non-completion. It has nothing to do with the war. Neither does “The Cremation,” which is set more fully in the Archipelago and whose horror aspects stem directly from that fear of not knowing the local traditions and attitudes and behaviours. It works all too well. Also largely separate from the war is “The Watched,” whose horrific nature really only comes through in the last few pages. Before that, it definitely has its creepy elements but they’re not the focus (although on reflection perhaps that ought to have made it more creepy…). The tantalising gaps in this story are the sort of thing that in another author’s hands would just indicate a lack of imagination, or pages where they’ve simply deleted “MUST ADD MORE INFO HERE”. Instead, the reader is left just as much in the dark as Ordier about the society of the Qataari, his object of frustrated fascination. What makes the novella really work is that this fascination, while at the heart of the story, is not its sole preoccupation. Ordier – living in the Dream Archipelago but not a native, having left the mainland and his war-related work – lives a relatively ordinary life with a girlfriend whose job is demanding and disappointing, and we get many pages of relatively ordinary life along with Ordier’s growing obsession. This adds to the creepiness but it’s not just there as filler; actually I would have been happy reading about Ordier and Jenessa and their experiences, they’re so intriguing. Which is why it works as a novella.
Are they SF? Is this fantasy? No. The collection is set on a different world, yes; but there’s no exceptional technology – it would be easy to read much of it as set in a generic olde worlde rural setting until you get references to planes, grenade launchers and microwaves. There’s also no magic; the time vortex just exists, and except for stuffing around with air travel doesn’t actually impact on life. The people are human, with nothing special about them. This is just… a world. But I would still argue that it counts as speculative fiction, because I am contrary like that.
This is not the sort of collection I can imagine reading again. The stories are demanding, they’re frustrating, and I think they may only work once. But that once was pretty glorious.