Islands, Marta Randall

islandsIslands, Marta Randall (1976)
Review by Joachim Boaz

One of the more effective ways to write about the ennui of immortality is often not from the perspective of the immortals themselves. Works like Raymond Z Gallun’s The Eden Cycle (1974) manage to convince the reader of the sensory overload generated by more and more baroque environments created by immortals desperate for something new and meaningful. But, like the immortal protagonists, by the end of the novel we are mentally exhausted and bored. Randall’s rumination is more modelled on James Gunn’s The Immortals (1962). Gunn’s near-masterpiece is less about mental states of the eponymous humans “blessed” with immortality, and more about the ramifications of their existence on the rest of society not “blessed” with such genetic structures. Randall’s Islands takes this formulation to its furthest point and generates a world where a single individual—the narrator – is the only one not “blessed” with immortality.

Tia is the only non-immortal alive. At seventeen she entered treatment expecting to live the life of an immortal but for some unexplained reason the treatment did not take hold, “You’ll live very well. But not youthfully. So sorry” (p 10). Due to medical advances, Tia can still expect to live at least two hundred years.

Just as the landscape of Earth – a mostly flooded world now (a past cataclysm is hinted at) – has changed from the world of our day, the successful implementation of immortality has irrevocably transformed their society. Intellectual advances have ceased, a profound malaise permeates. The immortals dabble in things like adolescents. They have passing interests in people, and activities, and expect to move on and experience new elements continuously. They obsess over beauty and perfection, and are terrified of decay and reminders that time, at one point, has passed.

All of these traits the immortals proclaim as virtues, Tia eschews. She narrates: “I carefully created a chronology for myself […] At two hundred I would be shriveled and tucked, seamed and weak and lined and dithering. At one hundred I would be caught between that state and the next one down, between middle-age and senility” (p 89). She is drawn to the dangerous. She observes herself age with obsessive detail.

She recounts how in her youth, before her ability to age became apparent, she ran away from Paul, her immortal lover, in part because of her grief and despair at the failure of the treatment and the fear that she will be rejected. She voyages to Australia where the “damaged” immortals live – those who have suffered horrific accidents and are no longer specimens of beauty and are thus considered outcasts. She then travels to the Moon where groups of immortals, who dare to be intellectually stimulating and create new and wonderful works or art, and even spaceships for the exploration of the stars, reside. But she fears her bond with Greg, her lover on the Moon, would be shattered if she reveals her secret.

At the “current” moment in the narrative, Tia joins the crew of the Ilium, an oceangoing vessel that transports immortals to the submerged islands of Hawaii where they pillage the ruins for knick-knacks and trinkets for their residences. Tia on the other hand, is drawn to the past, drawn to a past where time mattered. And in the ruins she discovers another metaphoric island, a hidden room with a strange promise.

Do not let the atrocious cover art dissuade you from picking up the novel. The covers for both the 1976 and the 1980 edition do not represent the contents in any meaningful way. The 1980 edition suggests a romance-tinged affair – the man in control, clutching the woman. Randall’s book is altogether more chilling, and sinister. Randall could not resist a few snarky comments on her webpage about the “the floating purple turds” attacking the ship on the 1980 Pocket Books cover and the generally horrid luck she had with cover art.

Randall’s title is perfect. Tia is an island among the immortals whose lives and outlook on the world aso much different than hers. The structure of the novel, short chapters never longer than eight or so pages, are non-linear island-like memories, cut apart and reorganized they would form a linear narrative. Separated from each other they form momentary impressions… Likewise, Tia moves from world to world, the strange outcasts in Australia, the facilities on the Moon, the Ilium vessel that voyages to the submerged cities of Hawaii, and the dark room submerged in the ruins, a hidden space, a secret island.

My only qualm, and at some points it was distracting to a fault, is the narrative’s slow descent into metaphysical hoopla. Cringe-worthy passages such as this one – “Touched it. Changed it. Affected its movements. Altered its pace. With my – mind? Consciousness? Spirit? Soul?” (p 152) – weaken the otherworldly feel, they cheapen Tia’s profound, and entirely justified, brooding. Tia’s deepening existential crisis is depicted with all the existential indicators and pseudo-mystical excess that threaten to overwhelm the reader with insincere pathos and melodrama.

But Randall can weave some beautiful scenes. For example, her Ballard-esque sequences of scavenging the remains of a ruined world beneath the waters to disturbing glimpses of Paul’s strange sexual obsession with decay when his own body is unchanging…

Unjustly forgotten, Islands is a solid example of the late New Wave movement. I will definitely look for a copy of A City in the North (1976).

This review originally appeared on Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations.

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.