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Living Next Door to the God of Love

by Justina Robson

(Macmillan, 17.99, 400 pages, haredback, 21 October 2005.)

Review by Jakob Schmidt

cover scanIt's been thirty years since humankind encountered Unity -- a powerful alien life form that, in the constraints of the four-dimensional-universe, appears as a self-transforming substance called Stuff. It is materialised consciousness, pretty much all-powerful, and it has the ability to translate all other living beings into a part of itself. The ambassadors of Unity claim that nothing is lost in this process -- but since no human being who has been translated ever came back, the process looks suspiciously like dying.

In spite of the risk of accidental translation, humanity has established a relation of mutual benefit with Unity: the latter provides pocket universes, modelled on human imagination, which provide the opportunity to explore the human condition in a totally new way -- even though most people only see tourist attractions or hideouts from government authority in them. The dangerous, mythical Universe of Sankhara is one such place.

Francine, a teenager genetically engineered for beauty and brilliance, arrives at Sankhara on the run from a dull and meaningless life. Her cynical lookout is fundamentally changed when she meets and falls in love with Jalaeka. But Jaleaka is on the run as well -- from the most powerful being in all the known Universes. He's a splinter of Unity, and Unity wants him back -- and it's not prepared to take "no" for an answer...

Living Next Door to the God of Love begins where most other SF-novels dealing with questions of transcendence end (in fact it also begins where Robsons previous novel, Natural History, ended). Therefore it's only fitting that it starts with the apocalyptic disappearance/translation of an entire universe. The first chapter of this novel significantly raises the stakes on her previous work, and not only by its flashy action and grand scenery. Transcendence, so we learn, has become a very real option -- now lets see how humanity comes to terms with the fact. Or better: let's see if humanity comes to terms with it. As it turns out, this is in fact a very similar question to how we come to terms with the end of linear, four-dimensional existence today, structured by the central paradox that we can envision neither death nor eternal life. Consequently, the novel itself is build up around paradoxes: for one thing, while it employs multiple tropes of the fantastic, including elves, vampires, ancient gods and modern super heroes, it operates firmly within the mindset of critical inquiry that also informs Robsons previous novels. While magic and religious symbolism permeate the book, they quite explicitly are only expressions of or gloss-over for the fundamental problems of existence. Robson approaches this dilemma -- the paradox of conscious life itself -- through various venues, explored through a multiplicity of point-of-view characters. Translation into Unity is not the only model of life after death -- there's also electronic storage (ridden by a slow fadeout from existence), firm religious belief and finally the idea of romantic love and its moments that last forever. Of course, all of this somehow misses the mark and is only a substitute for an impossible longing.

Which brings us to the second major paradox of the novel, constructed around desire. Enter Jaleaka, the splinter of Unity, which Unity has lost and therefore lacks -- the ultimate token of desire, not only for Unity, but for everyone he encounters, always longing and longed for, defined by what others see in him and desperately trying to find a way to define himself. Even though Jaleaka is a kind of god, he's probably on the most fundamentally human quest, which situates him in the very gap of desire. Probably the most impressive feat Robson pulls of in this novel is narrating from the perspective of a nearly all-powerful being and managing to integrate him believably into a very human, fundamentally social situation. Even a transcendental being like Jaleaka turns out to be subjected to the human condition as soon as he becomes a linear self. And in a way, even Unity is, as soon as it enters the game of longing by inhabiting a human self.

After all those philosophical ramblings, you probably want to know if you'll enjoy reading Living Next Door to the God of Love. To start with the good news: Robson's idiosyncratic, vivid descriptions, her spot-on characterisation, her witty humour are all in place, along with the occasional well-informed genre- and pop-culture references. There are even a few laugh-out-loud moments, like a certain graffiti in Sindarin. But, on the other hand, there's some pretty heavy stuff, including several rape scenes that might turn a weak stomach. It's not too graphic, but on an emotional level much of it is quite brutal. That's probably one of the reasons why I didn't read this novel with the same delight as I read, for example, Silver Screen. Frankly, Living Next Door to the God of Love is emotionally exhausting, and I had to take several breaks while reading it. It's also talky in some spots (most of the talking is in fact quite arresting, but it doesn't always move the plot forward), and it seems to get slightly distracted around the middle. In the end, I didn't get all the reward I felt I deserved, but that's obviously due to the subject matter of the book. This is about questions you probably had since you have realised that people die, and there's no novel that will make them go away or give a satisfactory answer.

In the end, despite it's cosmic scale, this is once again a novel that closely focuses on the human individuals populating it, searching for love and a glimpse of truth. There are about a dozen point-of-view characters, and it speaks of Robsons quality in character writing that there's no danger of mixing them up while reading. There's characters you'll probably be at home with immediately, like Greg the slightly frustrated Unity-researcher, and some who demand some unlocking, like the runaway Francine or the forged Valkyrie, and there's even glimpses into the thought-processes of Unity as projected into four-dimensional Avatars. Robson does a great job at describing the same characters from the inside and through the eyes of other characters, always sticking close to the chosen perspective. If there's one thing to query, it's probably the fact that all these people seem to share a similar laconic sense of humour -- but why complain about the permeating presence of this especially delightful feature of Robson's writing?

If I had to compare Living Next Door to the God of Love to classic science fiction novels (and a classic it may very well become itself), I'd choose Geoff Ryman's The Child Garden and Samuel R. Delany's Dhalgren. There are some stylistic similarities to Ryman, especially in the characterisation, but the true point of reference to me is how all these novels manage to convey a sense of the intolerable beauty of death and desire, while simultaneously refusing to fall for the easy answers of romanticism.

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