University Editions / 269 pages / April 1997
The SF writer’s task: create an alien culture on another planet. Never an easy assignment. One solution is to start from scratch, and develop creatures and a culture unlike any on Earth. Of course, it’s natural to find yourself slipping into things human and familiar; the alien society is us, but with Halloween make-up and oddly-coloured beverages.
Another solution is to give in to this natural tendency and just transplant entire societies off-world. Atrium appears to have taken a gargantuan backhoe to the Middle and Far East, scooping out whole populations to plop down on the planet Dolvia. Pseudo-Hindus and Pseudo-Muslims comprise the bulk of the natives, but the occasional Chinese character steps in for a cameo. (The personalities of the Chinese oppressors are never really fleshed out.) Even the terrain is reminiscent of India, Pakistan, Iraq — small wonder the Dolviets feel at home there. There is even a struggle to throw off the yoke of colonialism, and defeat the “company store” economy that ensures the status quo.
If this is a reworking of human history, there appears to be no reason to move the story into outer space. No solid reason, that is; perhaps a dusting of SF makes a social study more marketable. It is also possible Atrium has always wanted to write science fiction, but this tale occurred to her first. Then again, if there is no convincing argument to set the story on another planet, there is no convincing argument not to.
The story emerges through a mass of veils that cover modesty, shame, and, unfortunately, a large portion of the plot. Ritual, formal language and a practice of renaming characters as the situation merits provide no assistance in unravelling the tale. (I suspect I’m not the only reader forced to backtrack periodically to try to make sense of a suddenly murky plot. Or learn the identity of two characters, only to find they are a single person you just misplaced a few chapters before.) The end of the novel delivers a general resolution; the details remain a tangled mass.
Back up a moment. This all sounds quite negative, but that is unfair to Atrium. She has a flair for creating and maintaining an atmosphere of mysticism and mystery. Working with stilted language, steeped in tradition, she stays true to the situation, never slipping out of the frame she has set. And if her characters are difficult to distinguish, that makes them no less intriguing.
Because it is an intriguing tale. The struggle to overcome oppression, to preserve a way of life, to maintain compassion in a cold and hateful conflict, is always interesting and involving. This remains true even through the problems that operate to obscure the very story you wish to unravel. It is a difficult read, no question, but a worthwhile one, nevertheless.
Bottom line: if you’ve read Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, The Goulep may seem a pale imitation of the struggle for identity and independence. If you’ve kept up with David Wingrove’s Chung Kuo series, you’ve seen a clearer vision of a Chinese-dominated future. But these are experienced writers, and Stella Atrium is just beginning her career — there is time for her to work these problems out. And in the meantime, just read her debut and let it wash over you; not everything will stick, but you may unravel enough to make a second novel sound promising.