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Keeping it Real: Quantum Gravity Book One

by Justina Robson

(Gollancz, £10.99, 279 pages, trade paperback, also available in hardback priced £18.99, 18 May 2006. Gollancz, £6.99, 279 pages, paperback, November 2006.)

Review by Jakob Schmidt

cover scanLila Black is the newest in government cyborg technology: a heavily armed fighting machine resurrected from a near-dead human body. She's also a young woman who has just recently lost all contact with her friends and family, since she's officially dead. When she is assigned to protect the dissident elven rock star Zal from the murderous political intrigues of his home dimension, she has to face some further personal issues; it's not that she considers herself racist -- she just doesn't like elves. However, she discovers that Zal is not your run-of-the-mill Tolkien derivative. But just when the slightly perverse attraction between Lila and Zal starts to unfold, complications arise, and Lila has to team up with an unlikely ally and penetrate deep into the elven realms to rescue Zal from certain death -- or something worse...

Keeping it Real takes place in a near future irrevocably altered by a quantum accident which opened up gates to foreign dimensions populated by demons, elves and elemental spirits. Naturally, magic has made a comeback. Diplomatic relations with the non-human realms are guarded, but generally friendly. Overall, it's a cyberpunk-fantasy mix that is slightly reminiscent of the Shadowrun role playing game setting, but nevertheless original enough to make you want to figure out how exactly this world works. The whole set-up already suggests that Keeping it Real is a radical departure from Robson's previous work. While I enjoyed this novel, I'm not nearly as enthusiastic about it as about her other novels. This is most definitely not a high-concept science fiction novel, not even a cleverly disguised one. You can trust the cover design and the author's own statement, which both suggest that this is a fast, action-packed fun romp, written in Robson's breaks from working on the emotionally and intellectually challenging Living Next Door to the God of Love (the latter fact is also evident in the number of motifs these two very different novels share).

However, Keeping it Real still shows a lot of Robson's qualities -- well-written characters, witty dialogue and, in this case, tons of popcultural references. Characterisation focuses on Lila Black, who finds out that being turned into a cyborg super heroine doesn't free you from all that personal stuff people have to deal with about the age of twenty. In fact, it aggravates a lot of it. When Lila starts to think about her body, most of the time she is afraid that other people must find it monstrous (even though Zal makes no secret of actually being attracted by that monstrousness). Robson cleverly links the fun and sex-appeal of heavily armed cyborg existence to the inevitable moments of identity crisis and thereby constructs Lila's internal conflict around the well-known fact that sex is deeply scary -- even (and especially) if you are the very paragon of the phallic woman. Incidentally, Keeping it Real is also the first cyberpunk novel I have read that considers the sheer weight of extensive prosthetics and how it must feel when the servos quit working... So there actually is some serious character drama going on, even though it goes on in a metaphorical, Buffy-the-Vampire-Slayer type of way (I actually found out that activating the Buffy-sections of my brain made the book much more enjoyable).

However, I still have a few gripes with Keeping it Real besides its lack of complexity. One is that towards the end, the fast-paced narrative gets muddled by a lot of elven intrigue, which is difficult to follow and which didn't engage my interest enough to really try. This makes the big showdown feel rather arbitrary. My second gripe is that most of the book takes place in the elven realm, with exclusively elven protagonists besides Lila Black. Even though Robson both tries to present the elves as alien and dangerous and as very individual characters, I still felt that they couldn't escape the wide range of elven clichés. But that may be due to my general dislike of elves (which would probably make me a racist in the world of the novel...)

Anyway, Keeping it Real is worth reading, and I'm definitely looking forward to the next volume of the series -- but not as much as I'm looking forward to another Robson novel in the vein of her previous work.

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