It is not an easy thing to review the third part of a trilogy when you are fairly certain that most of your readers have never even heard of the first two volumes. However, I will not allow an Elizabeth Hand novel to go unmentioned, so I guess I’ll just have to skim quickly over the first two as well.
We open with Winterlong and find a far future decayed America that is post more holocausts than many people can remember. What government there is resides in the orbiting HORUS colonies, it being deemed better to have an entirely artificial environment than an entirely polluted one. The members of this new nobility are called Ascendants, because at some point or other they managed to get up there (probably massacring the previous inhabitants along the way) and what little law there is is enforced by their space pilot corps, the Aviators.
It soon becomes obvious that the “shinings” are not the only things to have devastated poor Mother Earth. Genetic engineering has also run riot, leading to abominations such as the dog-like Aardmen. The most obvious new lifeforms are called Geneslaves and are treated as such, but many people are not quite people any more either. And so we meet Wendy Wanders, a once autistic empath now on the run from the scientists of the Human Engineering Laboratory (HEL – geddit) in the company of Miss Scarlet, a talking chimpanzee. They end up in the City of Trees, the former Washington now given over mainly to pleasure parlours.
Meet also Margalis Tastanin, Aviator Imperator, the most ruthless of the Ascendants’ generals. He is searching for METATRON, an android AI programmed with the military knowledge of previous Ascendant hierarchies. It would be an invaluable weapon if found, and Washington seems like a good place to start.
Much blood and suffering follows. It is plain that Hand sees this world as ultimately corrupt, and she loses few opportunities to rub the message in. There is also a suggestion of developing mental powers in mankind and possibly a return of Ancient Gods, or at least Powers The Like of Which… Tastanin is killed, Wendy and Scarlet escape with the help of a zoologist called Jane (and there may be some sort of joke intended here).
So to book two, Æstival Tide, where we find Tastanin rescued by some of his Ascendant masters and resurrected as a Rasa (cyborg). It is unclear what role this episode plays in the overall story except to make Tastanin less than human and to reinforce the message of the debased evil of the Ascendants. In particular we are introduced to the practice of Harrowing, the ritual consumption of the brains of victims who were at least living when you started. Yuk! Note also that the scientist in charge of Wendy’s case in HEL was called Emma Harrow.
The action takes place in the domed city of Araboth, one of the few places on Earth deemed fit (thanks to its environmental control) for Ascendants to live in. By the end, of course, it is destroyed, with only Tastanin and a few companions escaping. It was a strange book, but I still loved it if only for the party scene in which we learn that the band are playing a well-loved traditional folk song called Court of the Crimson King.
And so to the final volume, Icarus Descending, which was never published in the UK and has taken me a couple of years to track down.
As we might expect, Wendy and Tastanin are re-united eventually, and both become embroiled in a Geneslave rebellion lead by the resurrected clone of a leading geneticist, Luther Burdock, and the miscreant METATRON. Burdock, whose mind is distinctly flaky, seems genuinely concerned about his “children” (he did, after all, make many of them from his own daughter). METATRON, on the other hand, has an entirely different agenda. And I must admit that choosing an military AI as your embodiment of ultimate evil has a certain elegance to it. I leave it as an exercise to the reader to decide just what awful denouement Hand manages this time. It is appropriately awful, promise.
There’s a lot of heavy irony in the book. For example, Jane, who was so devoted to her animals, is least able to accept the Geneslaves as fellow humans. And Tastanin, whom we have been lead to think of as the ultimate evil, is slowly transformed into the only possible saviour of humanity, more a victim of the Ascendants than their ally.
These were not easy books to read (unless you like having your stomach churned), nor do they have a hopeful message. The Hand line seems to be that we have done badly by Mother Earth, are likely to continue to do so exponentially, and eventually we will reap our just rewards. In many ways it reminds me of John Brunner’s eco-disaster novel, The Sheep Look Up. You keep reading it, expecting things to get better, and they just get worse. But these things need saying, and if they are going to be said I would prefer them to be set down by a writer of Hand’s elegance and intensity than by some lesser hack. If a book is painful to read, but you keep at it anyway because of the quality of the writing, that speaks volumes for the author.
This review originally appeared on Emerald City.
See also this SF Mistressworks review of Winterlong.