Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Battle of the Books, Bracket Five, Championship Round :: Harmony by Keith Brooke vs. The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers

We have arrived at the championship of Bracket Five of the Fantastic Reviews Battle of the Books. In one corner we have Harmony by Keith Brooke, a science fiction novel set on an alien-occupied Earth. In the other corner we have The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers, a near-future science fiction novel featuring a virus that kills pregnant women. So two books in the SHTF ("shit's hit the fan") sub-genre of SF. I (Aaron) have read through page 200 of Harmony and The Testament of Jessie Lamb, and the book I most want to continue reading to the end will be the champion of Bracket Five of the 2012 Battle of the Books.

Harmony: Solaris paperback, June 2012, 413 pages, cover art by Adam Tredowski. Harmony (published in the UK under the title alt.human) reached the championship by defeating Wildcatter by Dave Duncan in the first round and The Croning by Laird Barron in the second round, then edging Railsea by China MiƩville in the semifinals.

In Harmony, Earth has been taken over by multiple races of aliens, who have herded all the humans into "Ipps," Indigenous Peoples' Preserves. Our teenaged hero Dodge inhabits the caves of the Craigside Ipp. Refugees from the nearby town of Angiere arrive, reporting that humans have been eradicated from that town. Our second viewpoint character, Hope, was among those who left Angiere just in time. Hope previously escaped some sort of hospital, where she woke with severe memory loss. Dodge knows there is something strange about Hope, because she lacks the "pids," personal identifiers, aliens have placed in all humans' bloodstreams. When aliens seize the leaders of Craigside, Dodge finds himself suddenly in authority, desperate for a way to save his community from the attack he fears imminent. One possibility is to bolt for "Harmony," a fabled city where humans and aliens live as equals.

The Testament of Jessie Lamb: Harper Perennial trade paperback, May 2012, 240 pages, cover photo by Clayton Bastiani. The Testament of Jessie Lamb advanced to the championship with wins over This Case is Gonna Kill Me by Phillipa Bornikova in the first round, A Guile of Dragons by James Enge in the second round, and Nightglass by Liane Merciel in the semifinals.

The Testament of Jessie Lamb is the memoir of a teenager imprisoned by her father (for reasons I don't want to say, since they are not expressly revealed unil halfway into the book, but careful readers will know long before that). In Jessie's near-future world, bioterrorists have unleashed the MDS virus, which makes it fatal for any woman to become pregnant. Scientists, including Jessie's father, work desperately to find a cure. The best they have managed so far is to create a vaccine to immunize frozen embryos, permitting healthy children to be born to comatose "Sleeping Beauty" mothers, who will never wake. Deprived of its future, society is rapidly deteriorating. Jessie experiments with various protest groups but finds little comfort there. Finally, Jessie makes a momentous decision that her parents refuse to accept.

The Battle: I am required at this point to name a winner, and I will wish to justify my selection, which may misleadingly suggest that one of these novels is flawed. So let me first say that these are both excellent books, and either would be a worthy Battle of the Books winner.

In Harmony, Keith Brooke does an outstanding job of taking our own planet and turning it into a bizarre and frightening place. Here, for example, is Hope first arriving in Dodge's town:
She had understood those people [in Angiere], she had known how to get the right responses from them.

But here . . . she did not know what to make of a club where grey-skinned, bug-eyed aliens went to have their skin painfully flensed with metal graters, or where liquid was poured on a creature that was something like a slug on many legs, the liquid attracting a seething mass of bugs to eat the creature's flesh. She was strangely disturbed by the alien scabs that latched onto buildings and watched everything that passed with individual slow-moving eyes, colours flashing across their crusty surfaces. She did all she could to avoid the humans she came to know as nearly-men, the ones with dead emptiness in their eyes and alien growths on their bodies, with twitching faces and limbs and naked bodies covered in scars and filth and bruises.
Brooke conveys the strangeness of his transformed Earth and its various types of alien occupiers so effectively that it feels as if the humans, like native Americans today, have become outsiders in their own land. Even better, Brooke shows us this strange landscape through the eyes of a likeable young protagonist, who faces a host of challenges, some quite familiar and others nearly beyond our comprehension.

The Testament of Jessie Lamb also features an appealing young protagonist, who similarly has to navigate becoming an adult against the backdrop of an awful future. Jane Rogers tells Jessie's story through superb prose, including an exquisitely written scene where Jessie loses her virginity, then afterwards remembers that her boyfriend is soon to leave on a dangerous protest:
I couldn't bear to be left on my own, I was so sensitised I needed him to keep his arms around me at all times. It was like I had been peeled. When he asked, "What is it?" I told him, and he hugged me and said he'd be back soon. But I couldn't help it, and I cried. "Stop it," [he] whispered, "stop it, stop it," and he licked the tears off my face like a dog until I couldn't help laughing, and he called me an idiot. . . . Part of me wanted him to stop talking and just start kissing me again, my blood was fizzy and it made my whole body tingle. But another part of me wanted to have my clothes on and be outside in the cold night walking home, breathing the dark air and letting the thinking bits of me catch up with the feeling bits.
The battle between these two excellent novels comes down to their respective stories.

Early on, I felt that Rogers was effectively using Jessie's personal struggles to suggest the larger societal turmoil caused by the MDS epidemic. But in the second hundred pages, the balance has shifted, with nearly all the focus on Jessie's personal decision and her resulting conflict with her parents. What is happening with society at large, including whether the human race will survive at all, has been relegated to the background. After 200 pages, it is apparent that Rogers is using MDS to frame various metaphors about parent-child relationships, gender issues, etc., but society's battle with the MDS virus is rather tangential to the book's actual plot——how Jessie's story ultimately plays out will do nothing to resolve the larger story about the death, or at least transformation, of society as a whole. This is not a criticism of Jessie Lamb. Rogers deliberately chose to keep a narrow focus to her tale and for the most part it works, but it's an authorial choice that, in the end, makes it a bit easier for me to put the book down.

Meanwhile, Harmony is also very closely tied to a single young protagonist. But, unlike Jessie Lamb, Brooke's protagonist Dodge finds himself in a leadership role where his decisions carry consequences for many other people. The first 200 pages close with a harrowing scene, which requires Dodge to react quickly. What's more, there have been plenty of hints to suggest that Dodge and Hope will be the key figures in a greater story that will impact all of Earth. And that compels me to keep reading Harmony to the end.

THE WINNER: Harmony by Keith Brooke

Congratulations to Keith Brooke, who is our fifth Battle of the Books winner, joining the illustrious company of Elizabeth Bear, James Renner, Ian Tregillis, and Paolo Bacigalupi. We will feature Harmony in a full review at Fantastic Reviews, and we will also try to arrange an interview with Keith Brooke (who has already blogged about the Battle of the Books, so we hope he'll be open to that).

Thanks for joining us for Battle of the Books #5. Stay tuned for Battle of the Books #6, which will feature yet another array of talented authors, including James S.A. Corey (aka Daniel Abraham & Ty Franck), Orson Scott Card, Nancy Kress, Ian McDonald, and many others.

1 comment:

pattyp said...

I'm looking forward to reading Harmony. Yea to the Battle of the Books for introducing me to an author I might not otherwise have heard of.