The City and the Starved

By Niall HarrisonJuly 9, 2012

Osiris by E.J. Swift

FOUNDED IN 1997, helmed by Jason Williams (publisher) and Jeremy Lassen (editor-in-chief), Night Shade Books has in the last few years made a concerted and largely successful effort to establish itself as one of SF and fantasy’s talent-spotters. They have published a slew of well-received first novels, by writers such as Will McIntosh, Rob Ziegler, and Kameron Hurley, that have been notable for combining conceptual ambition, political engagement, and narrative vigor, and for not being overly strict about genre borders. Sometimes these qualities may be pursued at the expense of sensitivity — witness the critiques of Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, almost certainly Night Shade’s best-known title, for its construction of racial and gender tropes — and a year-long suspension from being a qualifying market for membership of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America suggests that the company may at times have been a better friend to readers than to authors; but the impact of Night Shade’s list on the field deserves to be recognized.

And so here is E.J. Swift’s debut novel, Osiris. Four hundred years downstream, we’re in a future that is, if not a consensus of the field, pretty common: ecocatastrophe has wrecked the planet, to the point that, at least so far as its inhabitants are concerned, there’s no point venturing beyond the titular city-state. This is humanity’s last redoubt. An ocean-borne marvel of massive pyramids and soaring towers, Osiris was originally a refuge, attracting “the world’s most brilliant minds, rich and poor, from the northern hemisphere to the south.” But by now it has passed “from elite technological masterpiece, to benevolent rescue centre, to reluctant tyrant”: the city as we find it is an autocratic place, divided into a wealthy core led by a few established families, governing more or less by hereditary succession, and a western periphery of grim poverty. Our guides conveniently reflect this division. In strictly alternating, sometimes overlapping chapters, we are escorted around the city by Adelaide Rechnov, a wealthy heiress convinced that her recently-vanished twin brother is still alive, and Vikram, a third-generation climate refugee attempting to improve conditions in the west; before too long, the two are thrown together in a you-scratch-my-back plot, and ultimately they begin a more intimate relationship.

There are echoes here of many prior works, but the one that kept coming to my mind was Julie Bertagna’s energetic 2002 novel Exodus. The two books are set in similarly afflicted worlds, and both feature luxurious castle-cities surrounded by refugees, plus paired protagonists from opposite sides of the wall: in fact both the starkness of the premise, and the choice of protagonists, felt familiar in Osiris because they have been so often deployed in recent novels that were, like Exodus, published for young adults. Osiris is not, itself, a young adult novel — not that that would be a problem, but if nothing else the protagonists are too old, Adelaide by a little, Vikram by rather more — but it’s interesting to see the dystopian narrative, having migrated from the adult to the YA category, making its way back again but preserving some of its mutations.

What a bare summary of the novel’s premise obscures is the amount of space Swift creates for her protagonists to simply live in their world and experience it for us — in other words, how textured the novel is. The world-building has a playfully oceanic flavor throughout — “Surfboard” now describes a tablet computer, on which you can access your “Reefmail”; “krill” is slang for journalists; and so on — but is most compelling when it is sketching out the psychology of Osiris’ citizens. Small episodes, such as an interlude on a freshwater iceberg during which Vikram muses that the slap of waves must be what land sounds like, or the “ground dreams” experienced by many citizens, underline that the sea here is all-encompassing: everything comes from it and returns to it. It’s the sea that catches the city’s ghosts, and the sea that gives the city’s criminal justice system its cues, from the underwater prisons to the official method of execution.

And of course it’s experienced differently on the two sides of the wall. For Adelaide, Osiris’ situation necessitates a certain self-awareness. She muses that, in the city, “every possession or belonging or simple luxury was representative of an achievement,” a much more conscious linkage than is common today. It’s the wealthy, too, who chafe against the city’s limitations, variously considering it a “lost city” and a place that “demanded the act of looking out”: one character suggests to Adelaide that “Human beings are not designed for confinement, however vast and exquisitely made the prison: the explorer in us will out.” Against this affirmation of the outward urge is Vikram’s more direct experience of the world beyond the walls, which reminds us how much of a luxury one of SF’s fondest psychological tropes can be. When presenting his case to the city’s council, he keeps nerves at bay by focusing on an “odd sight: the elderly weakened by heat,” rather than by cold; confronted by a bowl of fruit, he drifts into a reverie, recalling one of the few past times he had seen an orange, and the sense of intoxication that occasion yielded.

The novel’s context may be ecocatastrophe, then, but its core subject is inequality. This is, it’s worth noting, not an uncommon strategy for climate-based SF; or to put it another way, whatever the original animating impulse, such a depiction is an effective way of dramatizing the consequences of processes that operate on a timescale beyond the human. I’ve already mentioned Julie Bertagna’s work (the story inaugurated in Exodus is continued in Zenith and audaciously concluded in Aurora); another useful comparison is to Adam Roberts’ more satirical exploration of a world without a middle class in By Light Alone, particularly in terms of how the two writers imagine the conditions of wealth and destitution. For Roberts, both circumstances are extremities that deform the soul. His rich are cartoonishly selfish and cruel, his poor often grotesque or even animalistic: something has gone terribly wrong in both cases.

Correspondingly Swift, writing in a more naturalistic mode, finds humanity and dignity in both her subjects, while still refusing an easy verdict. Vikram may be in dogged pursuit of a noble cause, but he carries a great sense of injustice and an inculcated propensity to violence that is at times frightening both to himself and to the reader (“He saw the slow thick bleed of anger. He saw that it would take him apart bit by bit, until he was an alien to himself”). Adelaide may be arrogant and ignorant, but she can also be capable and resourceful. Yet, and this is perhaps where the YA-ish aspect of the novel rears its head again, there is something a little too easy about the underlying logic of Swift’s scenario. One striking yet questionable aspect of her approach is signalled in a scene in which Vikram attends a party thrown by Adelaide. Without anyone to talk to, he finds himself playing “the old game: guessing which Old World land each guest was descended from, imagining the landscapes where their ancestors had lived.” This is, in part, a tactic to underline how far from today Osiris is set; but to judge by the names we encounter, the city and the west are comparably diverse, with no sense that differences of origin have any present-day relevance. Such a removal of existing ethnic and racial tensions enables a class division that feels too novelistically neat, unencumbered by the complications that human societies tend to create.

Moreover, Swift is more convincing when writing about plenty than about poverty. Vikram’s world is damp, and cold, and pungent, but lacking in intensity; Vikram himself is intense, but not always convincing as representative of the very poor, as when he mentally describes Adelaide’s swearing as “vulgarity” — a more middle-class word choice than seems really apt. In the city proper, however, Swift revels in opulence. “The rooms were quiet and graceful, their walls striped with narrow ribbons of mirror, red cedar and sequoia”; “Deceptive sunshine polished the tapering structures of glass and metal, turning the bridges and shuttle lines that webbed them into silver threads”; “They sat on opposite sides of the table, the polished lake of wood between them. At one end, a pot of coral tea on a ceramic base steamed gently.” This preference is reinforced by the structure of the novel. Over two thirds of Osiris take place in Adelaide’s world — indeed only in the last fifty pages or so does Adelaide leave her polder and directly experience the alternative world Vikram has been telling her about, and by that point plot has taken a tighter grip on the proceedings, and there is not very much time for sightseeing. All of which said, there is a sharp and serious political novel here; it’s just one in which the focus is quite clearly more on one side than the other. Vikram’s campaign for aid proceeds in painstaking steps, but we get only glimpses of what his former friends in the west are up to. The various schemes and intrigues of the Osiris families are matched in their intricacy only by the development of the protagonists’ relationship.

Which brings me back to the emotional core of Osiris. Swift takes her time developing the relationship between Vikram and Adelaide, and although the overall trajectory is fairly clear from the start, the details keep it compelling. It takes longer than you expect to become a romance, and even when it does both parties’ feelings are messy and partial, the power imbalances between them never far from the surface. Here’s Vikram, for instance, depersonalizing Adelaide even during one of their more intimate moments: “It was a body that had never known hunger, had barely known cold. Sometimes he despised her for its ignorance.” In general Swift is good at psychodrama, at cultivating a sense that her characters are driven by strong emotions; this strength, in fact, carries the novel through its closing stages, which are occupied by a kidnap-and-rescue scenario that is by far the most conventional and least interesting set-piece in the story, and which ends up costing not nearly as much as a reader might feel it should. This is particularly a shame because in the novel’s early stages Swift demonstrates a much more sophisticated control of pace and tone, an ability to rapidly shift gears within scenes, and a willingness to undercut one scene with another: most notably, the prologue removes ambiguity from one of the major questions facing the protagonists and requires Swift to show one character in particular as much more obsessive and less sympathetic than would otherwise be the case. In the end it’s that choice, perhaps, more than anything else in this nuanced, intriguing, occasionally frustrating book, that makes me think Night Shade have found another worthy writer, and that has me cautiously anticipating Swift’s next outing.

LARB Contributor

Niall Harrison is an independent critic based in Newcastle upon Tyne, UK. He is a former editor of Strange Horizons, and his writing has also appeared in The New York Review of Science Fiction, Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction, and others. He has been a judge for the Arthur C. Clarke Award and a guest of honor at the 2023 British National Science Fiction Convention. His 2023 collection All These Worlds: Reviews and Essays is available from Briardene Books.


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