Kirinya Ian McDonald (Victor Gollancz, £16.99, 412 pages, hardback. Published 2 July 1998.)
So, what could possibly follow Chaga, Ian McDonald's 1995 tour de force novel of the alien? The middle volume of a trilogy is what -- for, with Kirinya, McDonald has surely been caught in the act of committing trilogy.
Chaga told the story of a near-future Earth invaded by the alien: not by aliens, but by a living buckminsterfullerene technology, or chemistry, or something... a creeping coral-type growth that comes from space and takes over most of the landmass of the southern hemisphere.
Kirinya opens powerfully, with the first volume's protagonist, Gaby McAslan forced into exile in chaga-encrusted Africa because the child she carried has been touched by the alien chemistry: Gaby's child has been changed in some way. (You can read part of this opening section elsewhere in infinity plus.)
And then we jump to Oksana, previously a supporting character but centre-stage for much of this volume. (It was clear in Chaga that McDonald enjoyed this character, with her mix of shamanistic spirituality and ballsy, stubborn, combative practicality -- she's fun and engaging and you wouldn't want to meet her on a dark night. Or maybe you would.) In a world that is coming to terms with its changed state, Oksana must too. But where Oksana learns to embrace the alien invasion, the uncontaminated northern nations follow humanity's grand tradition of inhumanity and choose to fight against all that is different, all that is alien.
Unfortunately, this is where the novel starts to lose way for a time. Chaga is an incredibly seductive novel: from the opening pages it draws the reader in, plays with our mental G-spots. Kirinya struggles to find direction, taking a long time to move all the players into position (and in some cases, to hurt them enough to make them want to act). For too long there's no real onward drive, and we're just drifting through a sequence of events.
And while this is happening, or being allowed to happen, all we have to sustain us are McDonald's slick language and wit, his deep compassion, the neat descriptions and turns of phrase, the throwaway characterisation ... shit, what was I complaining about?
Oh yes, the lack of impetus. Part of the problem is an inevitable dose of sequelitis, a picking up of pieces and explaining what needs to be explained. For quite some time, Kirinya is carrying the baggage of its predecessor, struggling to take off.
But it does take off. It really does.
About halfway through, all those scattered happenings start to pull together, all the manoeuvring and punishment start to reap their reward. All the causes start to effect. Where Chaga seduced, Kirinya gets you drunk and confused and then it sneaks up and mugs you.
And leaves you wanting more.
Where Chaga was a novel of the mystery of the alien, Kirinya is a novel of the alien made everyday. One of McDonald's achievements with this book is that his alien remains credible in the glare of the spotlight.
And yet, even as we examine it, the chaga remains other, its mystery intact. Still, we do not know where it is from, what it is doing, why.
As McDonald says, near the end, "There are mysteries still to be discovered. There is story still to be told." And at least two plot-lines left dangling.
I just hope he's going to pick them up soon.
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© Keith Brooke 19 September 1998