Islands, Marta Randall

Islands, Marta Randall (1976)
Review by Ian Sales

Marta Randall’s debut novel, Islands, was one of many suggested titles which were added to the original SF Mistressworks meme list (see here), though both the title and the author were unfamiliar to me – and, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn, to most sf readers. Which is a shame. Because Islands is a pretty good science fiction novel of its time.

The cover art may leave something to be desired (even though it’s by Vincent Di Fate) and the strapline of “She could love again, a mortal woman – in a world of immortals!” does the book no favours. It’s also completely inaccurate. But the prose within the covers is a degree better than was common among the more popular sf authors of the 1970s.

The book is set some centuries in the future, after a failed attempt to melt some of the polar icecap for water got out of hand and raised sea level by tens of metres. Around the same time, a scientist discovered a treatment which made people immortal. And so, at the time when the story of Islands takes place, a smallish population of immortal dilettantes wander about the Earth, treating everything they do like a hobby. If there’s one weakness in Islands, it’s that there seems to be no infrastructure to support this population of immortal wastrels. Where does the power come from? Who makes the spoons? Who grows the corn and bakes the bread?

Not everyone is immortal, however. There are occasional sports, for whom the treatment does not work. Tia Hamley is one such. She is aging while those around her remain forever young. Consequently, they find her existence disturbing. And she finds their presence equally unbearable. Much of the novel takes place on a trip to Hawaii to dive on the sunken islands and retrieve treasures – ie, junk from before “the Shaping”. The expedition – it is not the first Tia has been on – travels to Hawaii on a ship:

The Ilium is a broad-beamed cathedral of a ship, spired and buttressed, castellated, crystalline; a floating opera, a palace, a folly, an illustration from an ancient, fantastical story-book, a creation of God-struck coral. (p 21)

Once on site, the Ilium will dive to give easier access to the sunken ruins. While the other half dozen members of the expedition will use “bubble-suits” (some sort of force field), Tia does it the old-fashioned way: in scuba gear. During the dive, Tia discovers a strange building, and within it a secret room which teaches her a form of super biofeedback…

These chapters alternates with episodes from Tia’s past, in which she learnt of her condition, and tried to come to terms with it. These include a stint living on the Moon, and in a space station within the orbit of Mercury. The sections set on the Moon, while living with a “line-walker”, who is employed to check the miles of pipes on the surface – a job Tia herself takes – are among the more affecting in the book. Her lover, Greg, and his friends, build an interstellar slower-than-light ship and intend to leave the Solar system. They invite Tia to join them, but since she’s not immortal she refuses to go.

Meanwhile, the expedition to sunken Hawaii is complicated by the presence of Paul, an ex-lover of Tia’s. Of course, he has not changed while she has. And yet Paul seems – ghoulishly – drawn to her. There’s no rekindling of the romance, of course – and it’s only towards the end of the novel that Tia realises why Paul is attracted to her:

“I thought you might have ripped your suit, that you might have drowned.” His voice dropped an octave, reached me husky and dense. “I thought of you lying trapped in rocks with your hoses cut, or impaled by one of those big fish. I thought I saw you floating through the buildings with your face dead behind your mask, or your mask ripped off.” (p 138)

All of the characters aboard the Ilium are damaged in some way, and it is that, as well as Tia’s presence among them – or rather, what Tia represents – that brings events to a head. And results in the deaths of several of them. And catapults Tia, via the super-biofeedback she has learnt, to a new level.

The prose throughout Islands is good, but it’s the character of Tia which makes the book. As mentioned earlier, the worldbuilding is mostly weak – though some of the details are cleverly done. Some of the set-pieces from Tia’s past are quite effective, but in almost all cases it is the characters – well-written, rounded characters – which impress.

Though Islands may read a little dated in style to modern readers, it’s a good read. It’s shame this book appears to have been forgotten.

5 thoughts on “Islands, Marta Randall

  1. Agreed all around. The characters are what made Islands. I could have done without any plot other than her existence around the rest of the crew of the Ilium, but at least the ending wasn’t so strong as to detract from my enjoyment of everything leading up to it. I also thought Randall did a fantastic job of not making Tia come across as sympathetic rather than whiny–and considering how much of the book she spends feeling sorry for herself, I consider this quite the feat.

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