No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Saturday, May 21, 2005

#46: Useful Idiots -- Jan Mark

I've literally just finished reading this book and I'm overwhelmed. It's a book I wish I'd written, packed full of the little details that captivate me in real life -- the way that people still throw coins into water but don't know why, the shapes of the frozen sea, the joy of snow, light pouring over a city at sunrise. Green burials. Fenlands. The scream of a skull.

I can't recall who recommended this to me: I thought it might've been in the BSFA's Best Books of 2004 (Vector March/April '05) but can't find it there. But a while back I wrote down the title, and when I saw it in paperback I bought it.

It's juvenile SF: no, don't stop reading. It's not a book for children, though there's nothing too dreadful in it.

It's 2255, in a United States of Europe somewhat reshaped by rising seas and changing climate. The former British Isles are now the North Rhine Delta islands, and there's a group who call themselves Aborigines, who've turned to the past -- readopting ancient English names such as Shepherd, Turner, Mason -- and live in isolation on a reservation that used to be part of East Anglia.

The Europeans call them Oysters, when they're not listening.

A hurricane has swept the reservation, exposing human remains. Merrick Korda, a graduate assistant in an archaeology department (archaeology being 'the lost science', discredited for racialist and nationalist leanings) is involved in the dig, and in the subsequent politics centred on the skeleton of Parizo Man. Gradually he uncovers an unpleasant, deliberately-forgotten piece of history: gradually he realises that there is a way to prove the nature of Parizo Man and to accord the Aborigines more rights, protection, status. He's helped (at first grudgingly) by his boss; by an Aborigine ballerina named Frida Mason; by her uncle, the mayor of the Aborigine township of Briease.

So far so good. I'm not going to detail the plot. (I want to talk about the ending, but not to anyone who hasn't read it.) The setting is just as intriguing: this is a very credible, and not over-detailed, future. There's enough detail to sketch in the outlines of the world, without overwhelming the action. There aren't infodumps (well, there's a good summary of how the world changed, but that's more than halfway through) and a great deal is only hinted at: is there still space travel? What's happened to the USA? What's the city where Korda lives?

The thrill of archaeology, the solitary nature of Korda's life (privacy as a name for something less pleasant, oh yes), the loss of the past, the rise of anti-federalism -- all are there, occasionally hammered home but not generally obtrusive. There are a few places where the plot's a little wispy, a little improbable, though I found it easy to suspend my disbelief. What caught me was the atmosphere, and the descriptions. Mark's prose is crisp and clean, not cluttered with subjectives or with clunky comparisons to the world we know.

This is a stunning book.

reposted here from LJ in order to keep all my reviews in one place

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