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The Post-colonial Prometheus...,
This review is from: Empire of Bones (Mass Market Paperback)
Empire of Bones is an extrapolation of my favourite Liz Williams short story, The Unthinkables. This short story, published in Interzone a couple of years ago, told the tale of an alien race that had a strict caste hierarchy, with the Unthinkables on the lowest rung. This had obvious overtones of the Untouchable caste in India, and in Empire of Bones, Liz Williams has made this comparison explicit, since her novel involves both the Unthinkables (or 'The Naturals') and the Untouchables.
Elements of the earlier story resound. The Khaithoi caste is insectile, while Sirru's caste is birdlike. Readers of The Unthinkables will immediately identify with the likeable Sirru, and like him, will distrust the aloof and mysterious Khaithoi. The Khaithoi are far more educated than the Desqusai (Sirru's people), and exclude the lower caste by employing their higher concepts in a secret and exclusive language in Sirru's presence. Jaya Nihalani, on the other hand, exploits her membership of the Untouchable caste to feign ignorance of English whilst she is poked and prodded at in a UN hospital. She may be the object under examination by the English doctors, but she still strives towards subjectivity and empowerment by eavesdropping on their discussion of her.
Despite the fact that this novel is published in America, and will presumably have a largely American audience, this is primarily a British post-colonial Science Fiction novel. This distinction is important: the aliens here have no interest in sullying the White House Lawn by landing there, as they might conceivably do in the archetypal American imperial popular science fiction narrative. My view is that the Americans are now producing popular science fictions that are the equivalent of those the British produced a hundred years ago, at a similar juncture: the imminent fear of the fall of empire.
As is to be expected in a novel written by a woman, there is no misogyny directed at women. Indeed, the world's oldest profession is presented in a sympathetic light and has a valuable role to play. Having said that, although Anarres the courtesan is not threatened with death as punishment due to the open broadcasting of her sexual allure, she and Ir Yth are employed very much as tools. Sirru and Ir Yth are the stereotypical 'dysfunctional' parents - it's no wonder that their young 'uns have gone so wrong (although these are not Ir Yth's progeny - she's more of the wicked step mum). Like many of the wives in the novel except Jaya, Ir Yth is unfaithful, and thus Sirru, like all the husbands, are cuckolded - although this must be even more humiliating if you do actually look like a cockerel. Unlike the American popular science fiction narrative, Sirru the alien is not presented as a threat. True enough, Jaya misunderstands his intentions, and like a vampire, Sirru can transform his body to hide from the gaze of humans so he can infiltrate his neighbours and surroundings with ease; but we know that he is also a hero, since he is presented in a sympathetic light. Sirru is the very antithesis of a vampire: he gives his own blood and bodily fluids to save life (although his method of giving blood can still be quite violent). His naiveté of human affairs is presented in a humorous light, but he is ultimately more knowledgeable than he appears...
Liz Williams has spent a great deal of time in Asia, and has no doubt observed the
Indian caste system in action, but this actually turns out to be that very British thing - a novel about class. Perhaps one thing that the British colonisers (that Liz Williams mentions so often), found so appealing about India was the complementarity of the caste system to the class system. Amir is certainly Anglo-Indian, so his predecessors must have embraced the British in more ways than one. Sirru and Jaya do have a couple of dialogues about free will, but it is the explicit comparison between Amir and Sirru that best expresses it. Unlike Sirru, Amir has already lost his ancestral lands to the Japanese businessman Tokhai. Like the rural English, Amir finds himself priced out of his local area and his palace is sold off to become a country cottage/second or third home. Amir exerts his free will by trying to cling on and enforce the old order, but unlike Sirru and Jaya, he does not realise that the wheel will go round and round, no matter what he does. Nowhere One and the Naturals, despite their revolt against the caste system, still have an inherent hierarchy.
I have written far more than I had intended to about The Empire of Bones, which in itself is indicative of its appeal (interested readers can contact me to read the rest of the essay online). In an interview with Liz Williams, she told me that she tries to make every word count in her fiction. This is certainly true in The Empire of Bones. The novel has an intricate plotline, such a sound and compelling structure, that there is a twist and turn with almost every page. Unlike Jaya's audience when she's a conjuror's assistant, there will be few hecklers to detract from Liz Williams' conjuring tricks. In the character of Tokhai, Liz Williams seems to have returned to the theme of her PhD, that of the philosophy of science. She's interested in just how far scientists will go in undermining ethical boundaries. Tokhai may need a cane for his stereotypical mad scientist disability (although the disability is novel and pertinent to the novel), but boy, can he run and run! Tokhai has far less angst than Mary Shelley's most famous creation though; rather it is Sirru who has the stress of playing the Promethean father. If you've a sensitive and discerning nose, you should find Liz Williams' fiction to be far more spicy and appealing.