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Lights in the Darkness of Genre
A feature by Nick Gevers

When Tricia Sullivan's novel Dreaming In Smoke won the Arthur C Clarke Award in 1999, overcoming competition from the likes of The Extremes by Christopher Priest, there was widespread surprise. But Sullivan is an author of deceptive depth, of brilliant resourcefulness; her work fully deserves its widening share of attention. This essay, referring to Dreaming In Smoke (1998) and an earlier book, Someone To Watch Over Me (1997), investigates in detail the shrewd and innovative storytelling strategies that make Sullivan's books among the most intriguing SF has to offer in the late 1990s.

These two novels can be described as parables of vision. Sullivan's theme is commonplace enough: as the titles of these books imply, she is concerned with the near-impossibility of accurate perception, with the myopia of those who watch, the opacity of the world we dream. Sullivan's originality lies in the technique by which she simultaneously diagnoses and resolves human blindness: while writing Science Fiction narratives, she argues that the SF genre functions both as a blindfold and as a set of lenses allowing realistic insight. Someone To Watch Over Me and Dreaming In Smoke identify those elements within SF that, because they are outmoded or overly introverted, confuse the reader's understanding of reality; having done this, the books recalibrate and reintegrate these materials, combining them in a revelatory synergy. The effect of this is both disorienting and illuminating.

One effect of this disorientation, of the sly upsetting of genre expectations that is Sullivan's hallmark, is the insusceptibility of these books to orthodox feminist readings. Sullivan's female protagonists, Sabina in Someone To Watch Over Me and Kalypso Deed in Dreaming In Smoke, are designed to be as open as possible to transforming experience, so they cannot be endowed with any ideological or psychological certainties. Consequently, they defy the norms of feminist SF's traditional characterization, emerging as rootless, directionless, their mixture of fecklessness and feistiness amounting to a systematic evasion by their creator of any shaping imperative of political correctness. Indeed, the sense grows that for Sullivan, rape or violation, of the body or the mind, can function as a necessary "door" to new and transforming perceptions; this unfeminist governing metaphor of both novels is willfully disturbing, a strategy to confound the reader that is little mitigated by the fact that male characters like Adrien Reyes and Azamat Marcsson face violations of their own. Sullivan's revisionist mischief bites deep.

That mischief works similarly at the expense of cyberpunk. Sullivan, who might superficially seem to belong to the same class of Nineties neo-cyberpunk writers as Pat Cadigan and Neal Stephenson, in fact eats away at the subgenre from within, with a bold acidic gusto. She juxtaposes cyberpunk conventions with those of other varieties of SF and of fiction generally, showing up cyberpunk's shortcomings in that much larger context while achieving spectacular new effects through such conjunctions. By cunningly tormenting SF's orthodoxies, Sullivan exposes them as blind alleys, whose conventionality denies the genre essential redeeming novelty; but through drastic creative recombination, she then affords the tired standbys a new, illuminating potential. These two novels, then, resemble the fluid mental landscapes portrayed in Someone To Watch Over Me, and the alien ocean vividly rendered in Dreaming In Smoke: roiling, restlessly fecund of revolutionary hybrids.

Sullivan's second novel, Someone To Watch Over Me, operates very much in a territory of genre perplexity. With its early 21st Century setting, its devices such as cerebral implants, and its "noir" plotting, this work has the aspect of cyberpunk. But certain details and emphases contradict this appearance; and the direction of the central love story irresistibly compels the reconciliation of cyberpunk with more traditional romantic narrative. More specifically, Someone erects a love triangle, and then collapses this into a straight line; and this geometrical sleight redirects period- and technology-bound cyberpunk into a timelessly human domain.

One corner of Sullivan's love triangle is symptomatic of cyberpunk. The woman known as C is a Watcher: because she has become a perceptual cripple, her mind disconnected from all five senses, she employs Human Interface Technology (HIT) as a link to the minds of hired human proxies, whose experiences she can share, as some substitute for normal living. That this electronic existence makes her a voyeur and parasite is only one element of Sullivan's critique of cyberpunk conventions; more broadly, the underground network of which C is a member, the "Deep", sidesteps the traditionally artificial concerns of such hacker elites in SF, ignoring virtual realities and the data landscapes of cyberspace in favor of the direct, telepathic communion of people's minds. The popular culture of this future centres upon "wires", which permit the user to taste the sensations of others. Sullivan's moral - that technology must serve our social and empathetic impulses instead of replacing them - shapes Someone's narrative. The "Deep" is a gestalt ocean, from whose copious interactions new and menacing technologies are emerging; one of these is I, for "Immortality", a variety of implant permitting the full transfer of one individual's mind into the body of another. As C inhabits a living death of sensory deprivation, she intends to colonize another human being, one whose sensory faculties are intact. This awful covetousness is also a form of love, for the designated victim is C's loyal "trans" or proxy, a handsome martial arts expert, Adrien Reyes; the subtext of their contractual relationship as Watcher and "trans" is C's passion for Adrien, her desire to possess him mentally if she cannot love him physically. Such jealous, unreciprocable love is classically a feature, and perhaps the cause, of a love triangle; and this duly eventuates.

Early in the novel, Adrien, who has just barely escaped with his life from a perilous mission for C, senses C's encroachment on his mind. In some panic and disgust, he removes his implant, severing their ties. This is wise; C has already violated others, most notably Max Niagarin, a powerful member of the "Deep", whose strong capacity for religious faith she has excised (the continuing conflict between C and Max fuels much of Someone's plot). With most of the point of his life removed, Adrien must find reaffirmation and compensation; he falls in love with an experimental composer, Sabina, whom he encounters in Zagreb and for whom he also is a source of new direction and meaning. C's strategy in response is both expedient and vengeful: she uses I to implant herself in Sabina, whom she has lured to New York. She will destroy her rival by becoming her; and, in an inversion of her previous situation, while she may not now possess Adrien in the supernatural sense, she can possess him amorously, in the guise of his lover.

It is significant that C's implantation in Sabina occurs at a virtual reality party, where the decadent celebrants participate in the consensual hallucination of a fairy tale. One of the aficionados dismisses such "pseudo-fairy-tale stuff" as "passe", as "pretentious" (p129); this is a cyberpunk dismissal of Fantasy. And yet the logic of Sullivan's plot is that of a fairy tale, involving in effect malicious sorcery, possession, threatened souls. The fairy tale form haunts and redeems cyberpunk here; from the existential horror of possession by interface (cyberpunk) stems maturation and reconciliation (fairy tale). The attempted conquest of Sabina by C - the description of which, involving dense depiction of surreal countries of the mind, is perhaps Sullivan's greatest achievement in this novel - becomes a process of integration, of the pooling of talents and the communion of emotions. This is an instance of Sullivan's tendency to represent violation as a gateway to renovation or transcendence; the rape of Sabina's mind makes her into someone deeper and better, a composer at last capable of genuine inspiration, as C's invasive music fills her. Both women are victorious: Sabina, originally a third-person narrative subject, acquires C's once-egotistical first-person narrative voice, while C, from being merely a bodiless Watcher, becomes able to act physically as well as to "see". In the fusion of C and Sabina, their rivalry is defused; the novel's love triangle is resolved, as two frail women become a single strong one; and the harmonious linear romance of Adrien and Sabina can proceed.

The counterpoint to this reconciliation is the disintegration of the mind of C's other "trans", Tomaj, whose collapse is an omen of the threat posed by the end of individual and cultural boundaries in a postmodern age. It is in the face of that threat that Sullivan calls cyberpunk tendencies to account, repudiating the evolutionary or "posthuman" ethic of such authors as Bruce Sterling. In Someone, radically transformative technologies like I may open new doorways; but their hallmark is exploitation, usurpation, the ownership of others. A moral and human centre must be retained; transformation must serve some just cause, like love. Traditional genres - the love story, the fairy tale - should, in their authentic humane truthfulness, govern genres of novelty. This is the conclusion of this parable of vision: that we must not Watch and covet, not harness the New for aggrandizement; rather, we should see and understand, employing novelty as a means towards sympathetic knowledge of the Other.

It is a measure of Sullivan's lucid flexibility that Dreaming In Smoke, her third novel, presents a very different assessment of the viability of traditional forms of behaviour, asserting the supremacy over us of the external environment, regardless of human concerns. Where Someone dealt chiefly with the subjective opacity of individuals to one another, relegating the human race's wider confusions to the status of vivid background, Dreaming discusses the deep inscrutability of the physical world, a barrier that applies impartially to all. In this novel it is pervasively emphasized that we exist within narrow perceptual walls; the fires of the world burn brightly outside, but we cannot see for the walls and the smoke. Perhaps we can glimpse Reality in dreams, but more likely Reality dreams us. This existential and scientific perplexity is that of SF as well: in this text, different narrative forms and ideological postures typical of the genre batter themselves against the enigma of Nature, and are found sorely wanting. Sullivan's design, before the resolution of her plot, is to leave her audience, with its grounding in SF's genre expectations, reading in smoke.

Dreaming's superficial allegiance is to the subgenres of planetary romance and cyberpunk. The setting is the alien planet T'nane; human colonists have long since arrived in the expectation of a benign and thus terraformable environment. But T'nane is inhospitable: CO2 predominates in its atmosphere, and its world-spanning ocean is home to an alien biochemistry that is comprehensible and exploitable only in small ways. The settlers remain restricted to their base, First, and to various transport craft; the "Oxygen Problem", the task of making T'nane's air breathable, seems insuperable, and the colony may stagnate and die. The conventional tale of colonization, and its customary sequel, the planetary romance, with its supposition of the harmony of humans and the exotically alien, prove inadequate formulae in the face of a truly intractable ecology; neither the conquest of T'nane by human Competence nor a mystical communion with the alien World-Soul is feasible. Familiar SF types are defeated by T'nane. The sorority of Mothers that governs the settlement is a caricature of a feminist community, withdrawing in the face of the world's obstacles by means of drugs, alcohol, and nostalgic dreams of Earth; their conversations are hilariously glossolalic. Other matriarchs, known as the "Dead", dwell in T'nane's wilderness, in some greater contact with the indigenous ecosystem, but they are mute, ruthless, destructive, a further invalidation of genre feminist assumptions. The class of male scientist-technicians known as Grunts (perhaps because they are subordinate to the Mothers and speak with monosyllabic practicality) is little better off; the type of the competent engineer cannot resolve the Oxygen Problem either. With these older resources of SF indicted as blind, can a more recent formula serve?

Unfortunately for the colonists, Sullivan continues her critique of cyberpunk in this novel. The heart of the settlement is Ganesh, a powerful Artificial Intelligence, which runs many vital life-support functions and allows the inhabitants of First to "Dream" themselves into virtual reality environments that are useful both as scientific simulations and as havens for escape. Ganesh's favorite visitor, the novel's protagonist, Kalypso Deed, is of escapist tendency: unmotivated, evasive, whimsical. She prefers the spaces of virtuality to the outer "Wild" of T'nane, and is thus an extreme example of the impracticality of her generation, the bright but aimless young things who are restricted to First when they should be spreading across the planet. Sullivan resoundingly condemns the essential passivity, the reliance on information rather than experience, of the cyberpunk heroine through her characterization of Kalypso: despite her surname, her deeds are few; she is consistently acted upon, initiating very little; and as she is the novel's sole viewpoint character, the reader's efforts to understand T'nane are not made easy. And as T'nane's strange ecology changes, threatening fatal disruption of First, artificial intelligence and virtual reality are no refuge: Ganesh is infiltrated by T'nanean logic, and increasingly breaks down. The psychological and technological riches of cyberpunk are a currency of little value in the face of Nature's fury.

In line with Sullivan's evocation of universal human blindness, the plot of Dreaming is deceptive and meandering, its vistas claustrophobic. Kalypso is in repeated conflict with a solitary and perhaps deranged "Grunt", Azamat Marcsson, who believes he can solve the Oxygen Problem through direct manipulation of T'nane's flexible biological System, its rich organic soup. Azamat's schemes are opaque, his utterances bizarre; and he leads Kalypso into a succession of dangerous scrapes, not the least of which entails his use of Kalypso as an experimental human-alien tissue culture. The abduction of the helpless heroine by the mad scientist - Dreaming's primary expression of Sullivan's characteristic motif of violation and yet another deflating deployment of SF cliché - does not avail Marcsson much. He has hoped to order T'nane to change, to vary its ecology to permit easy human inhabitation; instead, the planet is taking charge. Sudden thermal surges, the activities of the "Dead", Kalypso's involuntary interface with native organic matter, the infection of Ganesh with alien logic: all are parts of a strategy by T'nane's collective biology to transform itself, to offer humanity an ambiguous welcome. Clearly, we cannot discern much of the world's true shape; and where we would remake the world, the world remakes us. The plot of Dreaming has summarized our myopic confusion.

Where Someone is a fable of blind jealousy redeemed, Dreaming is a comedy of errors, a negation of hubristic Purpose. The interactions of its characters are affectingly farcical; this is well summed up in the novel's final scene, where Kalypso and Azamat, their conflict the basis of a slow involuntary empathy, wryly share a box of cigars. Around them, out of their control, the planet is metamorphosing in promising ways. Things may end well, but comedies always do; this springs not from the exercise of our will, but from convention, or destiny. This realization, an acknowledgment of human blindness, is by that very acknowledgment a reversal of blindness: Sullivan allows SF, with all its claims to utopian and cosmic vision, to perceive its own limits of perception. This is humbling; but the clichés of feminism, of Competence, of colonization, and of cyberpunk, duly chastened, can now again be guides to our perilous future adversity, can again shed some light in a gathering darkness.

Tricia Sullivan is a deft revisionist. Her understanding of the potentials and the pitfalls of the SF genre is luminously apparent; read in that light, her novels are exhilarating confections, at once parable and parody. Her versatility of tone and of voice, her gift for sustained metaphor, her incisive characterization, her often dense and witty language: these are all notable supporting strengths. Her plots may at times descend into a seeming bathos, allowing for too easy a positive outcome; but that can in itself be redemptive, a necessary light in an existential gloom. These two novels, deftly stark and stylish, are important pointers to the continuing vigor of SF on the verge of the Twenty First Century.

Editions consulted:

  • Someone To Watch Over Me (Orion Millennium UK, 1998, paperback)
  • Dreaming In Smoke (Bantam Spectra US, 1998, paperback)

Elsewhere in infinity plus:

Elsewhere on the web:

  • Many of Nick's reviews are online at Parsec.

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© Nick Gevers 27 November 1999