11 January 2008

Darkland

During my Christmas break I did quite a bit of reading, including Liz Williams’s 2006 novel, Darkland (Tor). I have read one or two of her previous novels but not enough to go looking for more. This book, found in one of my local charity shops, has changed all that.

It is set in the far future; a future of very rapid interstellar transport with a human diaspora spread across the galaxy on many different colony worlds. But the main focus of the novel is on the extensive genetic manipulation that the human race has used to adapt itself and other terrestrial species to these very different environments. As the opening scenes of the novel reveal, genetic manipulation has also been used to create and reinforce a range of novel human societies.

Darkland has the scope and drama of a space opera but is sharply focused on the experience of one woman, Vali, an assassin for an all-female organization called the Skald. The story is largely about the chance she is given to take revenge on a former mentor and lover who is now working for the enemy. I enjoyed Williams’s characterization and the way she developed the complex motives driving her central character.

The story reads like a standalone novel and, apart from the inevitable handful of minor loose ends, Williams ties everything up neatly by the end of the final chapter. Then she unravels everything again with a classic cliffhanger of an epilogue. Normally I don’t like novels that end on a cliffhanger, forcing me to buy the sequel in order to finish the story. But I thought this approach worked really well: a satisfying ending followed by the realization that there is more to follow.

Williams’s feminism is perhaps more obvious here than in other things of hers I have read. At times it is clumsily obvious. For example, was it really necessary to call an evil patriarchal society ‘Nhem’?

I did find myself wondering at times whether this was science fiction or fantasy. According to Clarke’s Third Law, any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Reading Darkland made me think there should be a corollary to that law: ‘Any piece of science fiction built around sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from fantasy.’ That is certainly the case for those sections of Darkland set on Mondhile, a backward colony planet, and even the parts of the novel set in more ‘civilized’ locations are filled with fantastical moments.

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