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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 Jack Deighton

cover scanI've not read Robson before but was intrigued by her discussion/interview with Jon Courtenay Grimwood at the 2006 Eastercon so jumped at the chance to review this book. The prospect of a Book One, though, did make the heart sink a bit and indeed Keeping It Real starts inauspiciously with an extended info dump.

In 2015 an accident with a supercollider distorted space-time and the Earth - now called Otopia - exists alongside other worlds containing elves, faeries, demons and elementals. Magic is a potent force throughout all six worlds and travel between them is relatively easy though restricted. It is always neater when such background is conveyed bit by bit in the body of the story but perhaps Robson didn't want to make her readers work too hard at this.

The action begins sometime in the 2020s. Our heroine, Lila Black, has had previous experience of the Elvish world, Alfheim, where she was almost killed by Dar, an Elvish secret agent, but has been nursed back to health on behalf of Otopia's security services whom she now works for. She is part cyborg, with limbs augmented by hi-tech weaponry, an internal AI, electromagnetic spectrum access, wireless connections to the internet, CCTV, etc - all powered by an internal tokamak. (Which struck me as a bit unlikely in the 2020s.)

Another minor infelicity was that Lila seems to be American. A lot of the usages reflect this but Robson's control here slips at times; there is a mention of Customs and Excise, a reference each to 'Allo 'Allo and It Ain't Half Hot, Mum (!!) a character uses "sodding" as an adjective and we also have an impeccably British term for a sexual encounter (by the way; how refreshing it is to see the act described as "a shag" in a work that's nominally SF) but of course there is a degree of wriggle room for an author here as the 2015 accident has affected history.

Lila's mission is to protect Zal, an elf who has become a rock star in the "normal" world but who is the subject of death threats from his own. Unfortunately she isn't particularly successful and after a motorbike joust with Dar and his allies Zal is abducted back into Alfheim in the claws of a huge phoenix.

The badly wounded Dar persuades the less damaged Lila he is a good guy after all and talks her into taking him over to Alfheim where the pair are enabled to heal each other in a kind of bonding process. They set out to find Zal, pursued by various night creatures and agents of Alfheim.

Lila rescues a pursuing elf, called Tath, from the creatures but Dar subsequently knifes him. When Lila touches the body Tath merges his (essence/soul/aura) with her. And then things get complicated. Lila becomes wiser to what passes for politics in Alfheim (there is a hint of stock casting feudalism here.) A water dragon makes a contributory appearance. Tath's unavoidable presence is a help and a hindrance, as are Lila's augmentations. There are levels of betrayal to outdo Alistair Maclean.

I'm not quite convinced of the SF rationale for the existence of elves, faeries and what not in Robson's six worlds (nor of its geological manifestation in Alfheim) but the story can't exist without them. The genre is an interesting conception, though - cyberfantasy, anyone? magepunk? -- if in the end a bit limiting.

There are some serious undertones to the book, of class and racial conflict - an implicit reproof to little Earthers everywhere - but overall this is more of a jeu d'esprit (or should that be jeu d'elfe?). And anyone who works in an explicit nod towards The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown's "Fire" to an important confrontation scene has to be saluted.

Doubtless we'll see others of Robson's six worlds in Quantum Gravity Books Two and Three (which might reveal what the gravity part is all about) but I'd have been happy enough to finish here even if there are some loose ends. It would also be tempting to go for the idea that Lila Black is Robson as she might wish herself to be but that would be to fall into the cardinal reviewing error of assigning to the author the views and attributes of her characters.

And there is a strange quote from Peter Hamilton on the cover which says, "It's good. It's really very good indeed," which reads to me as if he's surprised. After hearing Robson speak at Eastercon, I'm not. And it would be a grisly curmudgeon indeed who denied this book was entertaining.

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