When Quinn gave me The Years of Rice and Salt I was pretty skeptical. The conceit is an interesting one – Christendom entirely wiped out by the Black Death, rather than just mostly – but I couldn’t see how it could be made into a tractable story, especially as the book spans about a thousand years. Robinson’s ingenious hack around the technical problem is also an incredibly moving narrative feat.
He takes the idea of the jati from, I suppose, Buddhist mythology? I’m offline right now and can’t check (online now, wrong, Hindu) – but in the book a jati is a group of souls, a village, that accompany one another through multiple incarnations. So we have the same characters with different names but the same initials – B., I. and K. – reappearing in life after life together, as a tiger, a princess, a scientist, a sailor, a soldier, a reforming king, in China, in Spain, in North America, Yemen, Tibet.
The structure encompasses the novel’s millennium effortlessly, and it’s also a haunting and endlessly abundant metaphor for any group of travelling companions: your community, your kith and kin, the village it takes to raise your child. It packs the same emotional punch as the Dire Straits song Brothers in Arms (yeah, I like pompous eighties Britrock, so sue me), and it ties into Ethan Zuckerman’s provocative project – to engage our imaginative sympathy on behalf of people we don’t personally know. What the human race seems to need is a way to expand its loyalties, its tribe, to include everyone. Even Ronald Reagan recognized this, with his lunatic desire for alien invasion. I say, we need to embrace intelligent aliens as part of our jati as well. Me, I need to work on including the insane Republicans.
On a cheerier note, Morrissey sings that we hate it when our friends become successful, and Clive James’ best poem is “The Book of My Enemy Has Been Remaindered”, but I was actually delighted that Kate and Neal wrote wonderful books because how awkward would it be if I couldn’t think of anything nice to say about them?
Adult Themes is particularly interesting to me because it takes Australian society as a perfectly valid subject of study, noting cultural imports from North America and Europe without being engineered for resale to those markets. For all I know this has become the default mode of cultural studies in Australia, but it was new to me. After all, I cut my non-fictional teeth as Keith Windschuttle’s research assistant (not my proudest moment, though he wasn’t such an overtly racist whore back then) and now that he’s wrung every penny he can out of Aboriginal-holocaust-denying, he’s thinking of writing something about US history so he can sell more books. To which what can one say but: ugh.
None of which has anything to do with Kate except that she takes the set of prejudices and preoccupations I associate with people of Keith’s generation: real estate, marriage, children and so on; and deconstructs them as inadequate and meretricious cultural markers for adulthood. She is especially wry on the punitive economic structure of Australian society. It has become very, very difficult for young people to buy property, but in a home-ownership-obsessed society renters are considered sort of frivolous. Psych! Kate argues for replacing these shallow rites of passage – the excruciating wedding, the adjustable-rate mortgage – with a far more nuanced appreciation of modern adult lives, where for example your jati might take the place of a nuclear family.
It’s a terrific book, and it made me think pretty hard about how deeply I absorbed old-fashioned Australian prejudices without even realizing that I had done so. I loathed Sydney’s consensus reality while I lived there, but as soon as I got to San Francisco I got married, bought a house and squeezed out a couple of kids. I defined myself as a common-sensical Australian woman in contrast to the crazy Americans and their appalling taste in coffee. I made my career translating pretentious Latinate marketese into laconic Anglo-Saxon. I threw Christmas parties in summer. I sought pavlova. Mine is an expatriate patriotism, forged in exile, just as my mother’s most fervent Englishness dates from the day she stepped on the Fairsky in 1968.
Izzy and Eve is Neal’s best book, better even than his fantastic Glove Puppet, and oddly enough it deals intensely with changing structures for adulthood in Australia. Seems like the reinvented coming-of-age story has become a minor national preoccupation, for obvious reasons. There are chunks of Izzy and Eve that could have been lifted from the pages of Adult Themes and vice versa. But Neal’s take is a lyrical, melancholy, erotic urban fairy tale. Like improv jazz the book riffs around its themes, and like improv jazz a tight, complex structure underpins the appearance of effortlessness. It’s absolutely fucking brilliant.
Of course Neal had no end of trouble getting it published, and ended up going with a San Francisco house whose distributor promptly went belly-up. He’s discouraged and despite my pleas, says he doesn’t want to write any more science fiction. So I pointed him at John M. Ford and Emma Bull and the Nielsen Haydens, and now I’m going to send him Cory Doctorow’s Someone Comes To Town, Someone Leaves Town, which is lovely, lovely, lovely. And Leonard, you need to finish my space opera so I can send that to Neal as well.