Monday, January 25, 2021

Whiteley, Skyward Inn (2021)

Aliya Whiteley, Skyward Inn. Solaris, 2021. Pp. 255. ISBN 978-1-78108-882-1. $24.99/£13.19.

Reviewed by Don Riggs

Reading Skyward Inn now gives me a sense of how it must have felt in the 1960s to read the Nouveaux Romans of Michel Butor, Robbe-Grillet and Marguerite Duras: no intrusive narrator framing the dialogue and events of the fictional world, a radical reduction to just what was happening, or just what was going through the principal character’s mind. In science fiction terms, this means no infodump, no appendixes outlining the background, no maps, no glossary. All we have is Jem, short for Jemima; Isley, who it turns out is from the planet Qita; Jem’s son Fosse; and the people in the Skyward Inn, which is somewhere in the Western Protectorate. This last seems to be separate from… well, the rest of the world, I think, and is not far from the Kissing Gate, which I take to be a portal through which spaceships can travel to the planet Qita.

While at first it seems that the regulars in the Skyward Inn are a jolly enough lot, there are hidden grudges and injuries that come to the surface, as when someone insults Isley in the Inn itself, even though he is doing the cooking behind the window, Jem the earthling delivering the food and drinks to the guests in the main room. However, this surly customer is kicked out by one of the regulars, and the acceptance of the Alien is established within that company. It turns out that Jem had gone to Qita some unspecified time ago, where she stapled leaflets at various places on the planet. What those leaflets said is revealed much later in the novel, when Jem’s son Fosse goes to Qita as part of his process of maturation.

And so it goes: events occur, their significance emerges—or not—and the reader accepts it all as one accepts the evolution of a non-Lucid dream. I was not quite 200 pages in when I glanced at the blurb on the back cover and saw that there had been a war between humanity and the Qitans; was this too much information on the part of the blurb-writer? Or was it an alternative interpretation? And what exactly happened on Earth to result in the division between the Western Protectorate and the rest of the world?

The novel is set at the point of impending changes, or perhaps I should write Changes, within humanity and also on Qita; humans are being threatened by a plague in which people’s skin stretches, seemingly wanting to leave the bones and musculature of the body; also, people who touch each other will start to stick, as if their skin is flowing together, and they are becoming a composite being. One woman who visits her husband’s grave sees that the soil over him is wet, swampy—and she swears later that he reached out to her through that muck.

There are two threads in this story: in one, narrated in first person, Jem addresses the reader directly with her thoughts and perceptions; in the other, narrated in third-person limited omniscience, her son Fosse is described leading his life, some of which involves his meeting three people from somewhere else who disrupt his private acts on an abandoned farm. We are given no indication of where these people come from or what has brought them to live here; we have only Fosse’s subjective reactions to the man (negative) and the two women (positive). Again, there is a certain dream logic that seems to be guiding these developments, and all the characters simply accept that this is the way things are, and the way things are evolving.

I feel as if I have been feeling a group of objects on a table that are blocked from my sight by a towel or blanket, which also covers my hands and forearms. The writing is clear and engaging, but I find the old science-fiction categories of definition and infodump to be outmoded here, as if we have stepped beyond the traditional narrative strategies and have moved—slowly, as if under water—into a new realm. I recommend this novel, but I caution those who may want it, there does not seem to be a plot—at least, in any traditional sense.

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