Dust by Stephen
Both novellas republished in a single volume as Binary 4 (Gollancz, £4.99, 76 and 89 pages, paperback, published 8 August 2002.)
Having earlier issued editions of original novellas by writers of Horror and Dark Fantasy, PS Publishing has embarked on a round of SF chapbooks, and the results thus far are impressive. Both Paul J. McAuley and Stephen Baxter contrive tales with the compact focus of the short novel and yet also possessing the cosmic expansiveness of implication that is the hallmark of their respective space operatic oeuvres; both explore a moon in the outer Solar System while investigating issues of very immediate human significance; and both, extrapolating future history along extravagant paths of interplanetary colonisation and conquest, give lucid summaries of how past history has been shaped by cycles of hubris and forgetting. As Michael Swanwick suggests in his Introduction to Making History by McAuley, this is British Radical Hard SF at its best. It holds Science up as a mirror to us, as our expression and our challenge; and the conclusions that ensue are subversively and resonantly discomfiting.
Making History, like a moderate echo of McAuley's memorious antiquity-encrusted Confluence (1997-9; the first two volumes of this trilogy are reviewed elsewhere on this site), is set in a future that is (this time very much by its own contriving) a complex echo of the past. For the convenience of the powerful, the Earth of some centuries hence has reverted to old codes of patriotism and morality, to neo-Victorian conceptions of the nation state and personal modesty. The colonies established on the moons of Jupiter and Saturn have proved expensive undertakings; in time-honoured manner, they have rebelled in repudiation of their onerous debts, and like any colonial powers of old, the nations of Earth have combined to crush this defiance utterly, bringing devastation and military occupation to the once-beautiful domed city of Paris on Dione. While the sinisterly named Quiet War (the background also to other recent McAuley stories) seems to be over, the remnants of Dione's population still plot and yearn, dreaming that Marisa Bassi, their heroic leader, lives yet, and will guide them again. But history, as McAuley frequently asserts, is written by the victors, and the narrative of Dione's brutal subjugation comes to us from an historian in their employ.
Ferdo Graves is a dry old stick of an Historicist, hoping to understand Bassi that his sponsors may avoid suffering future nuisances to live. Graves is to some extent aware that he, the occupying authorities, and indeed the entire political and economic order of which he and they are part, constitute a reactionary caricature, a re-enactment of neo-conservative tendencies that were absurd even when they were new; and his descriptions of conquered Dione bear this out. As the novella opens, a clumsy performance of Mozart's Don Giovanni has been staged, and the rest of the tale plays out in the spirit of that opera, presenting the ludicrous licentiousness of the regime in its proper comic panoply even as the murderous damnable cynicism that underpins it induces social and individual tragedy. The nominally dashing but in fact psychopathic head of Earth's repressive apparatus on Dione, Dev Veeder, is fanatically in love with a visiting environmental engineer, Demi Lacombe; her attempts to gain access to information essential to Paris's reconstruction involve her in intrigues with Graves and certain Parisians; the decorous dance of romantic comic opera segues into violence and disillusionment; and Graves is left to contemplate how little is learnt even as history's patterns repeat themselves.
The greatest pleasure of Making History comes from observing the sardonic relish with which McAuley characterises and animates his dry old stick, with which he allows the victors to expose their own horrifying emptiness; the novella's dissection of historical perception is knowing as well as knowledgeable. The Great Man Theory of History, as revived by Graves, founders as he realises just how frail history's actors are, those poor blind tools of biology and ideology. And in Reality Dust, his meditation on the mad egomania of the rulers and the naïve idealism of the ruled, Stephen Baxter provides McAuley's parable with a counterpart even keener of edge.
Reality Dust is a belated entry in Baxter's long and sweeping future history sequence dealing with the struggle between humans and the alien Xeelee; it occurs not long after Earth's humans have thrown off the dominance of aliens much more mundane than the Xeelee, the Qax. This contextualisation is not overly important for purposes of comprehending the present novella, however; the collective historical memory of the human species, together with the entire archaeological and documentary record of Earth's past, has been expunged by the Qax, and the newly victorious revolutionaries proceed with an innocence the uninitiated reader can cautiously share - the proviso being that Baxter's universe is always as pitilessly dangerous as it is cognitively wonderful. It is the "pharaohs", the near-immortal humans who collaborated with the Qax occupation and are now being hunted down, who have retained some knowledge of previous millennia, and they will do anything to continue to enjoy their Olympian perspective. Knowing how important it is that some historical closure or reconciliation be achieved, Hama Druz, an investigator for Earth's Truth Commission, arrives on Callisto, a moon of Jupiter, where a few dozen pharaohs have fled; and it is here that the former rulers and their erstwhile subjects accomplish a sort of closure, by acting out the deepest dictates of their natures...
Like their Egyptian predecessors, the pharaohs desire extension of their conscious existence beyond their long, but now distinctly endangered, lives. Rather than interment in pyramids, their resident scientific genius, Reth Cana, offers them access to an authentic afterlife, one seemingly of omniscient contemplation. They are kings, princes, aristocrats; of course they accept; and the passages in which Baxter describes their brave new world are savagely apposite. Meanwhile the ruled, whose concerns are concrete and vital, will confront the mortal actualities of this cosmos, Xeelee or not. History is harsh; those who remember flee it, leaving the forgetful in its embrace; and how that embrace (desperate and close) turns out is the meat of the other Xeelee volumes.
Serious, sharp, intelligently crafted and persuasively argued, Making History and Reality Dust are excellent Hard SF, fresh testimony to the technical mastery and visionary creativity of their authors. With new novellas by Peter F. Hamilton and Ian McDonald in immediate prospect, the PS chapbook series bids fair to prosper.
(Order from PS Publishing, 98 High Ash Drive, Leeds LS17 8RE, England, or visit www.editorial-services.co.uk/pspublishing)
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© Nick Gevers 15 July 2000