“My heart going ‘boom, boom, boom’”

Long before the publication of Glorious Angels, Justina Robson burst onto the SF scene with the publication of her first two novels. According to her bio, she spent time working at a variety of jobs while she honed her craft. By her own count, she wrote and trashed two-and-a-half-million words of prose before making her first sale (Silver Screen) in 1999. The novel was subsequently nominated for a British Science Fiction Association Award and the Arthur C. Clarke Award, and it finished 12th that year in the Locus poll for best novel. Silver Screen engagingly tackles such late-’90s SF topics as machine development, artificial intelligence, and human-machine interface. In 2001, Robson returned with Mappa Mundi, which was shortlisted for the Clarke Award, taking on questions of free will, self-determination, and self-awareness, especially in relation to mind-control technologies.

These first two novels established some of Robson’s primary interests in science and nanotechnology, and they also placed her work within the British Boom of the 1990s. A special issue of Science Fiction Studies in 2003 (with essays by Mark Bould, Roger Luckhurst, and Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr.) provides a history of the British Boom and locates its emergence and themes within the social, cultural, and political developments in Great Britain at the time. As Csicsery-Ronay notes, the British Boom had no manifesto (unlike the cyberpunks) and no “shared ambitions and aesthetic programs.” Indeed, he suggests that it was not a “movement,” at all, but rather, a “moment” — which Bould notes was already over in 2003.

Nevertheless, as Bould and Luckhurst argue, the British Boom embodied the convergence of a number of factors in British life, including changes in the SF publishing market and powerful transformations in British politics and culture during the period. Boom writers included Iain Banks, Stephen Baxter, Richard Calder, Mary Gentle, Nicola Griffith, Gwyneth Jones, Ian McDonald, China Miéville, Kim Newman, Richard Morgan, Adam Roberts, Geoff Ryman, and Tricia Sullivan, among others. Critics generally add Robson’s name to the list of Boom writers, though at the tail end of the “moment.” As Roger Luckhurst notes, “Robson’s technology allegorizes questions of enforced consensus, the encouragement of re-wired entrepreneurial subjects, and cultural governance.” Similarly, Mark Bould declares that the British Boom, like so many “moments” in SF, engaged in the process of abandoning science fiction altogether. Luckhurst concurs, noting that the Boom writers “use the generic apparatus of sf to explore [a] contemporary ferment.” Robson’s confirms Bould’s and Luckhurst’s claims regarding the relationship between SF and politics. Glorious Angels, as we will see, begins with a very different sort of question. Nevertheless, Robson asks questions regarding the “contemporary ferment” while she employs the “generic apparatus of sf.”

“Can you tell me where my country lies?”

Much like Robson’s previous novels, Glorious Angels is a long, complex work that resists easy summary — especially without giving away pertinent information, as a number of key plot points are revealed only in the final chapter. The narrative sets the reader down in medias res, and she must piece characters, events, and backgrounds together as the novel progresses. As Philip Snyder (in SFRA Review 271) notes of an earlier novel, Robson writes of worlds that she knows all too well, and the reader struggles to find footholds. What world is this? Who are these people? What are the stakes?

The novel is set in an indeterminate time on an unidentified planet. The world is populated by humans and Karoo, and the humans are largely located in eight cities, each of which is ruled by a queen. Most of the action takes place in Glimshard, which is the “second city of the Golden Empire” ruled by Queen Yaphantine Shamuit Torada. The eight queens, however, have a strong telepathic connection that allows them to communicate at a distance, allowing some of the queens to pressure or compel others to act according to their will. These eight cities and their queens are the ragged remains of a previous “golden empire.” The residents of the cities bumble along, distrusting one another and the humans outside the cities, though the residents of Glimshard enjoy the benefits of both technology and magic.

The three heroes of the novel are the remaining members of the Huntingore family — the last three members of a family of “mages.” The mother, Tralane, is a professor of engineering in Glimshard. Her daughter, Isabeau, is a gifted scientist and devotee of an all-female society, the Sorority of the Star. The sisters of the sorority claim to adhere to an ethos of pure logic. The younger daughter, Minnabar, a socialite, prefers to follow the latest fashions and to hang out with her “web” of friends. When she is kidnapped, however, she discovers that she has inherited more from her mother than she might have thought.

Apart from the three protagonists, the novel is populated by an assortment of schemers and intriguers, including the Queen of Glimshard, Torada; her Minister, Horad Alide; her military commander, Fadurant Borze; the head of the Infomancy, Shrazade; the intelligence gatherer, Parlumi Night; and the “guttersnipe,” Zharazin Mazhd, who studied with Night but now works for the Infomancy. Each has his or her own secrets and skills; they all have a stake in the discoveries at the “digsite” — a buried cache of old technology. The struggles over the contents of the digsite become a battle among the scientists and military of Glimshard, the Queens of Glimshard and Spire, and the humans and the Karoo.

Although Glimshard and the human cities are technological, they also employ “magic.” The Huntingores are from a line of “mages,” and Glimshard is colloquially known at the “city of mages.” They have a certain facility with “Sircene” knowledge; power is transmitted via “aethers”; city-wide communication is via the “public mage net”; and some individuals have the ability to “read” the minds (and sometimes, the blood) of others. Inside the structure at the digsite, Tralane realizes that she cannot read the “spells” because they have been corrupted over time. The “spells” are, in fact, computer programs that have been corrupted. By one scientist’s estimate, the machines at the digsite have been in place for 10,000 years.

On the one hand, I’m tempted to read Glorious Angels as a take on Arthur C. Clarke’s third law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Indeed, the residents of this unnamed world generally cannot understand the workings of the devices around them and consequently refer to them as “magic.” Some residents, such as the academics, have an idea of how things work, but they very rarely know why. Almost all of their technology has been “discovered” or “found” and then backward-engineered. They simply don’t know enough to create and produce their own technology. Other recent SF novels have employed similar strategies. For example, Rosemary Kirstein’s Steerswoman series (1989–2004) takes place on an Earth-like world with feudal states. The “wizards” control “dragons” by “magic,” but in the end turns out to be a “list” of code or a “program.” (For even more examples, see this article at i09.)

On the other hand, I’m tempted to read Glorious Angels as a cautionary tale about our failures to understand the very machines that we use on a daily basis. What does it mean that our children can post images to Instagram or Snapchat but cannot explain electricity? What does it mean that significant portions of the population doubt the climate crisis because politicians and corporations cast doubt on science and the scientific method? What does it mean that we spend our time with social media and social networks instead of engaging in the issues of the day? I would not, however, want to reduce the novel to an allegory about technology.

“Now, in the hate-filled world / We must break all the chains that have bound us”

As I write this review (in mid-November of 2015), I find it difficult not to link the novel with events going on around me: the murders in Paris and Mali, the anti-Syrian and -Muslim rhetoric in the United States and Europe, and the proposal in the United States to require all Syrians to wear an ID badge. Obviously, Robson wrote Glorious Angels before any of these particular events. However, the sentiments, attitudes, and actions have been with us for a while now. And one is tempted to read Glorious Angels as an examination of the “ferment” surrounding xenophobia, purity, and fear. The society and culture in Glimshard resemble, in many keys ways, the society and culture of the West, particularly Europe with its history of monarchs. It is an open, though somewhat stratified, society. It operates on the principles of territorialism, technocratism, and sublimated sexuality. The novel also offers a neighboring city, Spire, as an example of the threat of communism. Spire resembles nothing so much as the old Soviet Union, at least in principle. The Queen of Spire encourages selflessness in all residents, and they encourage them to suppress all desires. Finally, the Outlanders — those who live outside the cities — represent the uncivilized hordes who want either to enter the cities or to tear them down.

The residents of Glimshard fear both the residents of Spire and the Outlanders. However, they fear the Karoo most of all, whom they describe as dark and horrific, as feral and animalistic, as shape-shifters who will take their places and steal their knowledge. They see the Karoo as an existential threat that will annihilate humans and human society. When Tzaban, one of the Karoo, enters Glimshard, he triggers a wave of anti-Karoo sentiment — and a concomitant wave of the fetishization of the exotic. In the end, however, the Karoo clearly do want to steal their knowledge and eliminate the humans.

From Tzaban, from Minnabar’s travels, from Spire to the digsite, and from the digsite itself, we slowly discover more about the Karoo. We learn that they also have a matriarchal society, that they are intelligent but acquire knowledge through assimilation. They learn by killing and eating. They take on the knowledge and memories of those they have consumed. When Karoo die, the other Karoo eat them, perpetuating their knowledge along with them. When they kill humans, they eat them and acquire their knowledge. Therefore, they have lured humans, in particular the scientists, to the site of the buried technology in order to learn from them. One Karoo queen in particular intends to gain the knowledge of the digsite.

However, as in our own world, no one — and no society — is pure. Several of the key participants are either Karoo or Karoo-human hybrids, and we learn that the Karoo themselves are the result of genetic engineering. In Glorious Angels, then, the sanctioned response is not xenophobia and annihilation; instead, the key to the future — the key to survival — may well be the mingling of two races, two ideologies, and two epistemologies. The Karoo learn from humans, and the humans learn from the Karoo. Hybridity offers a way forward.

“I have crossed between the poles / For me there’s no mystery”

In 1967–’68, Ursula K. Le Guin undertook a “thought experiment” in The Left Hand of Darkness. In the novel, Le Guin proposes that, in the absence of masculine and feminine, only the “human” would remain. To test her hypothesis, she creates the world of Gethen, in which people live most of their lives without a sex and without a gender. Le Guin’s experiment earned a Nebula Award and a Hugo Award. And yet, even though Robson states in an interview that she disliked Le Guin’s experiment, and further that she dislikes the explicit incorporation of a political aim into fiction, she embarks upon a similar task. In a March 2015 essay in The Independent, Robson wonders about the social division into genders and about the perception of science fiction as a male bastion. In Glorious Angels, then, Robson begins with the premise of a world in which women are “‘by nature’ the top of the social hierarchies.” She decides to follow her “foremothers” and create a matriarchal society, planning “to be thoughtful and speculative” and “academic.” The plan, however, goes awry: “my book resiliently derailed itself on to tracks dealing with sex, power, and biology.”

Nevertheless, the world of Glorious Angels is, indeed, matriarchal. All eight cities are run by queens; they have absolute power. Young girls are trained as runners to deliver messages, and they have free reign to go wherever they choose. Males born with certain talents, such as Mazhd, must resign themselves to remain out of power, with their power unfulfilled. The generals occasionally bristle, but they know their place. While the military still seems to be largely male, all the academics we meet are female. Furthermore, the Karoo are also ruled by females; the Karoo females have much greater abilities than the males. Although never explicitly stated, the suggestion is that these natural abilities are the basis for the matriarchal societies.

The social relations in Glimshard (sexual, romantic, emotional) seem to be quite fluid. For example, Tralane has had an ongoing sexual relationship with her live-in student. When she begins a romantic and sexual relationship with Mazhd, they openly discuss whether or not her student would remain in the picture — it’s not a foregone conclusion that they would be exclusive. Both same-sex and opposite-sex relationships seem common enough that they are casually discussed, and Isabeau notes that “one might dally as one likes with whatever men, women, or whoever.” As another example, Queen Torada is constantly surrounded by her guards. At night, she participates telepathically and emotionally (but not physically) as her male guards engage in sex. Isabeau notes a list of eight pronouns one can use that signify sexual and romantic availability. Le Guin quickly faced criticism (which she later acknowledged) for her use of the universal masculine pronoun in Left Hand. In response, at least partly, Melissa Scott wrote Shadow Man (1996), which offers a world that has five recognized sexes and a full set of pronouns for all five of them. In Glorious Angels, Robson notes the existence of additional pronouns, but she resists using the invented pronouns at all.

Also of significance are the ways in which sexual desire finds outlet. The Postscript offers selections from Isabeau’s journal in which she writes about sex, gender, and sexuality. In a reversal of traditional Western thinking, she notes that women are the “natural rulers” because they bear and care for children, arguing that men are “territorial, possessive, argumentative, violent and antisocial,” which suits them for the military and for labor, but unsuits many of them for reproduction. In this, the novel seems to suggest some biological, essential masculinity that must be controlled. Isabeau notes that women control men through sex, that they keep men in a state of “instability through partial gratification.”

And, indeed, men express sexual desire and achieve satisfaction by other means, particularly via the bath houses. Borze notes that men attend in part to be social and in part to fulfill their needs. Sometimes those needs are met by women, sometimes by other men. They get primped and pampered and engage in casual, sometimes anonymous, sex. The Rose, a bath house, was established as a way to control powerful men. In Chapter Four, Borze visits the Rose and elects the room in which anonymous women select men for sex. He is chosen by Isabeau, who is testing the Sorority’s argument that sex can and should be a rational and unemotional act. Isabeau writes: “Surely the point is desire, which is the only impulse one does anything for?”

And, indeed, desire fills the pages of Glorious Angels. Tralane views the Karoo and feels a primal desire; Minnabar sees the Karoo and is filled with desire by the idea of such a “monster”; as her guards have sex, Torada thinks of their pleasure; at the same time, Torada also imagines Isabeau with desire; Isabeau prefers the notion of an “algorithm of desire.” Parlumi Night and her disciples follow a tract entitled The Call, which is “the theory of desire”: “Desire is the path, the only path.”

Apart from sexual and professional desire, the characters are motivated by some larger desire for the world and their society. Although nearly everyone underestimates Torada’s abilities and commitment, she plays a long game. No one knows her heritage, no one understands her motivations for marrying and mating with Tzaban. But her desire is to return humanity to its technological glory and to end the conflict between humans and Karoo. In order to do so, she takes the city of Glimshard, literally and figuratively, to the digsite. Simultaneously, Tralane, in her altogether less strategic manner, plays a game of her own. By means of devices she has found but not revealed, she has begun communication with the “Angels” in the sky.

“The path is clear though no eyes can see”

The novel ends ambiguously. Mind you, Robson tends to leave things open at the end of her works, but I suspect sequels are forthcoming. In what ways might the knowledge of the Angels change society? How would it alter attitudes, behaviors, and institutions to know that you are all from the same source? Would it change the world to suddenly have access to and understanding of the technology scattered around the planet? In what ways might the sex, gender, and sexual politics of the world change when confronted with ancestors/creators who understand them differently?

Through these questions and others, Robson continues to interrogate the contemporary cultural and social ferment: Glorious Angels asks questions about sexuality and desire and offers a model that alters the socially sanctioned arrangements. I would suggest, however, that the examinations of sex and desire in Glorious Angels do not work as well as those in either Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness or Scott’s Shadow Man, precisely because they are not as explicitly political, because they are not woven into the very political structure of the novel. On the other hand, Glorious Angels succeeds as it addresses the contemporary ferment regarding cultural and social contamination and purity. In Robson’s novel, the Karoo represent a dark, animalistic threat to human existence. In Octavia E. Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy, the Oankali pose an existential threat to humanity, offering only a hybrid human/Oankali in its place. As in the previous example, Butler makes the conflict over the ontological status of humans qua humans central to the theme; as in Butler’s trilogy, Glorious Angels renders the struggle over hybridity and purity central to the novel, and it works all the better for it.

I’ll be awaiting the next installment to see where this pathway leads …


Ritch Calvin is an assistant professor of Women’s and Gender Studies in the Department of Cultural Analysis and Theory at SUNY Stony Brook on Long Island, New York.