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cover scanMuezzinland

by Stephen Palmer

(Cosmos Books; £14.50, 280 pages, paperback; October 1 2002.)

One reviewer described Stephen Palmer's debut novel, Memory Seed, as "greenpunk". I suppose the nearest equivalent for Muezzinland would be "tribalpunk". In this, his first published novel for some years, Palmer sidelines the environmental concerns of Memory Seed and its sequel, Glass, in favour of an examination of humanity and technology through the lens of African (or rather, "Aphrican") culture. Nshalla, daughter of the power-hungry Empress of Ghana, pursues her sister Mnada on an arduous trek from her native Accra to Fes in Morocco; both are meanwhile hunted by their mother and her fearsome android advisor I-C-U Tompieme. Muezzinland links the three women; it can be found in no atlas, yet it exerts a powerful influence on the sisters, drawing them north across the Sahara, and drawing the Empress after them.

Place played a significant part in Palmer's previous two novels, and one talent he showed in spades was the ability to convey a real sense of that place through its culture, to imbue it with a character of its own. Here he has a ready made setting--the life and environment of Ghanaian villagers, desert nomads and Moroccan townsfolk provides plenty of authentic place and culture, made novel only by virtue of the fact that science fiction novels tend not to be set in Africa. Palmer's imagination finds its outlet in the form of the aether, a kind of ambient virtual reality that's become integrated with the natural environment. The aether meshes hi-tech with tribal identity, feeding local folklore back into the community on an everyday basis. In effect, I think what the author's aiming for here is a "Reclaim the Streets" movement for cyberpunk, shifting the emphasis from technology back onto character, looking for a more human interpretation of a genre that has traditionally glorified technological dehumanisation. Mnada's plight certainly seems to suggest this, as she first loses her identity to malign aetheric influences, then rediscovers herself with the help and love of her sister. The Empress, meanwhile, who prefers to deal with the outside world through remote, artificial means, or through her murderous android confidant, is the clear-cut villain of the piece: not only does she misuse technology for foul ends, but worse, she's a bad mother.

Technology is itself personified by a collection of artificial gods, evolved aetheric entities that are given bodies in the form of old African deities. Electronic gods seem to recur as a theme in Palmer's work (compare with the noophytes who fancied themselves the rulers of humanity's destiny in Memory Seed and Glass), but so do Palmer's views on consciousness and the relationship between mind and body. He's always careful to show that his AIs have achieved consciousness through communal interaction, and that their minds, however elevated, are corrupt unless anchored to bodies, made whole by the inclusion of physical senses. Physicality gives them the emotional rapport that allows them to live alongside humans. These particular gods have (rather unusual) bodies, but still can't get along with people -- they require the unifying and calming influence of Muezzinland, which draws them across Western Aphrica, leaving devastation in their wake. It's not too much of a leap to see this as a metaphor for any number of current world concerns, the runaway onslaught of X, consuming all and crushing anyone in its path, but what Muezzinland itself should represent eludes me. Perhaps it's X's unattainable or untenable goal, always drifting further ahead and inviting more destruction. Perhaps I read more literary criticism than is good for me.

Human interest, a rich atmosphere and Palmer's pleasingly lyrical prose keep the reader's interest, which is just as well because several key plot points are revealed halfway through the novel. Surprise last-minute plot twists are not a prominent feature of Muezzinland, although the sisters' odyssey across Western Aphrica maintains a certain pace, and Palmer manages to wrap the story up in a way that is neither obvious nor deus ex machina. The early over-exposure of the plot slightly jarred with me -- I like a little more suspense with my reading -- but overall I'd say it stands up well, and it's a thoroughly enjoyable read.

Review by John Toon.

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