Monday 22 June 2015

Memory of Water

(June 2015)

I guess I’ve only got myself to blame for this one. I’ve a limited tolerance for dystopia anyway, so going for a third in the space of a couple of weeks was probably pushing it. But look, this one’s been racking up the award nominations in a fairly spectacular style, and Random Acts of Senseless Violence was excellent, so strike while the iron is hot, eh?

No. Because straight away we run up against the second foreseeable problem, which is the, nnnnnnggg, worldbuilding. You know I think this is an aspect of SFF writing which is often overvalued to the point of fetish—worldbuilding should serve the story, not replace it—but you’ll also recall that I’m a physical geographer by training, and here things seem almost deliberately crafted to push my personal buttons. How does it frustrate me? Let me count the ways…

In a mid-future ‘Scandinavian Union’, Noria Kaitio is an apprentice tea master, learning under her father’s tutelage. They draw the noticeably fresh water for their ceremonies from a nearby spring, which is significant because the world has suffered some sort of global environmental catastrophe, making the polar ice caps an almost mythical folk-memory and the weather in what is presumably now northern Finland positively temperate, never dipping below freezing even in the depths of winter. Water is thus particularly scarce, and hiding fresh sources from the dystopically inevitable authoritarian regime is a crime that will get you rapidly disappeared.

Except this is demonstrable bollocks. When the Earth gets hotter it gets wetter, not drier; the water once locked up in the ice caps has to go somewhere, which means it gets brought back into the water cycle, not removed from it. Hotter=more evaporation=more precipitation. This is isn't some recondite piece of scientific lore, this is basic physics; simple, chapter one page one in The Big Book of Climate Science type stuff, and one of the most fundamental precepts underlying our interpretation of the climate record. Such a wanton contradiction in the worldbuilding leaves us with three possibilities:

1.    All that previously ice-bound water has somehow been lost from the hydrosphere, which would necessarily involve something approaching if not equal to an extinction level event. People and things are still alive, so we can rule this out.
2.    Water scarcity is a local phenomenon. Global climate is not, of course, the same as local climate, despite whatever any number of ignorant bellends might insist, but that the bigger picture might be different is never even hinted at, despite Noria living in a client state of an empire seemingly spanning most of Eurasia.
3.    The author doesn’t give a shit about scientific plausibility, because it’s a metaphor, or something.

I’m leaning towards the third option, because the worldbuilding is so creaky in other respects that even if it weren’t for that single edifice-destroying flaw in the foundation the rest of the structure would be in severe danger of collapsing in on itself. The tech is all over the shop; people communicate using ‘pods’ which appear to be smartphone analogues, and yet there’s no more plastic after the ‘Oil Wars’ (one of the neater touches is how Noria’s friend makes a living as a ‘plasticsmith’, scavenging waste plastics from long abandoned landfills), begging the question as to how and from what these technological marvels are made: have you any idea how much water it takes to manufacture an ipad? Solar energy has apparently developed to the point where it can power car-like ‘helicarriages’ as forms of personal transport, and even transcontinental rail networks, but that’s not an energy source currently light on the water or plastic usage either. I realize that mid-future technological advancements might explain a lot of this away, but no one knows what a fucking CD is or might be used for, which rather undermines that argument, and why has none of this technological expertise been directed towards, oh, I dunno, desalination? To say nothing of the fact that these scientific geniuses have singularly failed to realise that IF IT GETS HOTTER IT GETS WETTER.

Sorry. It’s going to be hard for me to let that one go.

Anyway, it’s worth recognising that slightly shaky worldbuilding in service of a larger goal, be it for the sake of metaphor or otherwise, is not a fatal flaw. It does need to be in service of something though, and I really don’t know what that is here. Noria is one of the blankest, most incurious protagonists I’ve encountered for a long time (it is, indeed, feasible that the rest of the planet might be a roiling tropical swamp for all the interest she shows in the world outside her village). Meanwhile the plot, such as it is, moves at a pace my irony chip compels me to describe as ‘glacial’, and is almost completely given away in the blurb (never read the blurb, I know, I know. I can only accept yet more of the blame for that, too). But that doesn’t matter much as it’s all so generically predictable anyway.

So the worldbuilding is facile, the plot is dull, and the characterization borders on the non-existent. What does that leave us with? There’s that metaphor, I suppose, but a metaphor for what? Homeopathy?

'…The story tells that water has a consciousness, that it carries in its memory everything that's ever happened in this world, from the time before humans until this moment, which draws itself in its memory even as it passes…'

That at least would fit with the utter disregard for scientific plausibility evidenced elsewhere, but to be honest I think that’s more in the way of an unhappy accident than anything intentional. No, what are left after we rule out everything else are theme and style, and the main theme—impermanence, the inevitability of change, mono no aware, blah blah blah— is something that even at the best of times I need to be in the right mood to appreciate. This was obviously not the best of times.

The style, however… Yeah, I can see why people rate the style. Itäranta can definitely turn out some beautifully constructed English sentences, even if they not infrequently topple over into self-parody. The tea master oath is particularly notable in this respect:

'I am the watcher of water. I am a servant of tea. I am a nurturer of change. I shall not chain what grows. I shall not cling to what must crumble. The way of tea is my way.'

"The way of tea." How do we want to play this? Are we going down the Night's Watch route or the Rifleman's Creed? THIS IS MY TEA! THERE ARE MANY LIKE IT BUT THIS ONE IS MINE! The sliver of my heart that is forever English soars a little at the thought of it, to be honest, but the rest of me just groans. "The way of tea." Seriously.

This is a little unfair; for the most part the prose is exquisite. That, however, is not enough to sustain an entire novel, let alone one so lacking in other ways to engage your attention; after about the 100 page mark I started skim-reading through many of the more 'lyrical' passages in the hope that something, anything, would actually happen. The main antagonist is introduced in the most transparent fashion about thirty pages in, and then you spend the next two-hundred waiting for the other shoe to ponderously, inevitably drop, during which time the tension doesn’t build so much as get smothered beneath all that delicate writing. At the sentence and paragraph level it’s feather-light, but en masse it’s as suffocating as an eiderdown pillow held over your face. All means and no end.

Memory of Water is, I might suggest, the high-water mark (sorry) of the current vogue in ‘literary’ SF for what Jonathan McCalmont has unimprovably termed “over-written sentence fragments about magical people experiencing emotions”. Except without the magic. Or emotions. Its language is undeniably beautiful, but as a whole it’s smothered by the accumulated weight of its own ethereal transience. Which is basically a way of saying that what works on the micro level doesn’t necessarily scale-up to the macro, and that, for all the ephemeral grace of the immediate surroundings, my journey through this book was an almost interminable slog.


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