Fool’s Run, Patricia A McKillip (1987)
Review by Guy
As my somewhat dog’s eared copy will attest this is a novel I have enjoyed quite a bit and read more than once. I first encountered McKillip’s work when I found Heir of Sea and Water, the second volume of the Riddlemaster of Hed trilogy in a drug store while attending an archaeological field school in Elk Point, Alberta. The Riddlemaster series now ranks right up there with Tolken’s Hobbit/LOTR books for me, and McKillip is really the only fantasy writer whose works I still buy as they come out. As far as I know, Fool’s Run is her only SF work.
From the prologue:
The static again. A different voice. “Jailbird. This is records. Name of prisoner?”
The com whistled. “You’ve got her.”
“Her status-sheet is a mile long, can I give-“
“Give us a printout when you dock. Jailbird. Is she sane?”
A break of silence. “You ask her. Look into her eyes and ask her.”
And so Terra Viridian who, as a conscripted recruit stationed in the Desert Sector of Earth, used her laser-rifle to kill one thousand five hundred and nine men, women, and children, has come to the Dark Ring, the Underworld, to spend, the rest of her life.
Chapter one starts in the Constellation Club on the Sunshine Coast, which includes the area formally known as Australia. The Constellation Club is owned by Sidney Halleck, a musicologist and promoter, who collects instruments and bands. His club contains 20 stages with the bands operating behind screens of light allowing the patrons to move from stage to stage. The Magician, the pianist and leader of a band called Nova, has just played Bach for four straight hours, after Nova’s last set, while in some kind of trance. This has been witnessed by Sidney and the Magician’s friend, Aaron Fisher a patroller (police officer) who works in the area. At the same time this is happening Jason Klyes the chief administrator of the Underworld, is fielding two requests. One is from his rehabilitation director Jeri Halpren who wants to work with Sidney to bring a band to perform a concert at Underworld.
The second is from a scientist Dr A Fiori of New Horizons, the mental health facility and rehabilitation centre that Terra Viridian should logically have been sent to, if there had not been so much political pressure to find her guilty. He wants to use a prisoner for Project Guinea Pig, a biocomputer (Dream Machine) which translates brain impulses onto the computer screen in an attempt to help understand and control criminal impulses. And of course the prisoner that Fiori has selected for the project is Terra Viridian. The last piece of the puzzle falls into place when Nova is selected to be the band will play a concert at Underworld.
Not all aspects of McKillip’s universe can immediately be ferreted out. There are no info-dumps and few lectures. She is a writer who shows rather than tells making the reader pay attention to the text they are reading. Which is not to say, she festoons her work with needless slang and in-jokes, to give it a false sense of depth. Any new words, cubers for drummers, sectors replacing countries and continents just supply a hint of the changes time has wrought but the language is straightforward. We find out enough about the world the characters inhabit, without slowing the narrative to add a lot of unneeded detail. The present culture some 5.2 billion people occupy the earth, the asteroids and some of the nearby planets. Regions are divided into sectors and the FWG, Free World Government is the overarching authority. As the Magician states,
“I wonder how long the FWG can keep its grip on the world. It’s part democracy, part tyranny, part socialist, part plain parental, and it has kept itself alive so far by our memory of near annihilation.” (p 101)
It is certainly not a perfect society, there are separatist movements, terrorist organizations, the patrollers must battle not only financially motivated crime but also random seemingly unmotivated crimes. Sounds a lot like today.
The characters themselves are nicely detailed. Despite the fact that McKillip has chosen to have the members of Nova go by nicknames, like characters in a western or medieval allegory, the Magician, the Scholar who is smart and plays the rod-harp, Questor the vocalist, who is or at least pretends, to be very French, the Nebraskian, the sound man who took the name from an old movie, and the cubers, the Gambler and his replacement (he does not fly, inner ear problems), the Queen of Hearts, become real people with obvious personalities before the end of the novel. I did notice that a number of the character traits that can be found in the Riddlemaster books, are also be found in Fool’s Run. One of the things I enjoy about McKillip’s characters is that conversation are often broken off, interrupted, that tone or body language is as important as what is said. Also even after years of working together or being friends her characters do not fully understand one another or know all the details of each others pasts.
I think this is best expressed in a conversation between the Magician and Aaron Fisher:
“Probably. Sorry I brought it up.”
“You didn’t,” Aaron said helplessly. “You just pulled it out of my head. You just -“…
“It was in your voice.”
Aaron shook his head doggedly. “It was in the silence after my voice.” (p 75)
I find this to be a reasonable approach that mirrors my experience. In my experience we interrupt each other, conceal as much as we reveal, dwell on some topics and avoid others, repeat ourselves, tailor what we say to our audience. Sometimes even our closest friends surprise us and sometimes even we do not fully understand our own motivations and reactions. I think this gives McKillip’s work a maturity and nuance lacking in a lot of science fiction. Fool’s Run is very much a novel about language and communication. One of the longest discussions between the band members is about the meaning and importance of symbols. The language of the novel is beautiful and evocative, from the fragments of poetry introduced in the security challenges from the prolong, to all the sensory information we receive, about the light, scents and sounds that inform each scene. This is also a novel about how people act and react, many of the characters rely as much on hunches, intuition, even a slight precognition ability as they do on logical decision making.
If I had to compare Fool’s Run to another book it would be Delany’s Babel-17. Stylistically both deal with language and symbol, with visions, intuitions, short hallucinatory passages of poetry and bursts of sensory experience although otherwise they are very dissimilar works.
This review originally appeared on A Jagged Orbit.