Space angels save the day
Brace yourselves for bewildering weirdness in Tricia Sullivan’s latest novel.
released 21 January 272 pages | Paperback/ebook Author Tricia sullivan Publisher Gollancz
Tricia Sullivan is on the threshold of big things. She was the winner of the Arthur C Clarke award in 1999 (for Dreaming In Smoke), and has been shortlisted again twice. This book was tagged as one to watch out for in the last issue of this very periodical. Now we’ve read it, we can say Occupy Me does not cement her position as a modern power in SF, but nor does it topple her back down the hill either.
Pearl is a... something. She’s not quite sure. Waking up in a fridge on top of a pile of broken machines ready for recycling at a Long Island tip, she has no recollection of how she got there, only that something is missing, and that she likes to fix things – including people.
Finding work with a secretive organisation who go by the name of The Resistance, she’s pulled into a convoluted conspiracy involving big oil, time travel, a mysterious briefcase and higher-dimensional space.
Sullivan’s writing can be beautiful. Although at times her prose escapes control and drowns us in artful metaphors, she has a talent for describing things in unusual ways, and mostly succeeds in anchoring this poetry with a conversational style that manages both wit and pace. The characters here are also a great strength. Pearl herself is deeply sympathetic, but it’s the humans of the piece that make the story, particularly down-to-Earth Scottish vet Allison. As an expatriate American living in Britain, Sullivan has a sincere affection for the nations either side of the Atlantic.
The story, on the other hand, is confusing, confused and often garbled. The plot begins with a protagonist who is ignorant of her nature, working for an organisation that remains shadowy throughout, run by an AI (maybe) who is never explained, hunting a man who is dogged, shall we say for the sake of not spoiling things, by a terrible split personality, for reasons which are never quite satisfactorily described. Science fiction shines when it has a mystery to be solved, but this is all mystery. It gives the reader so little to go on it’s bewildering. It settles down, eventually, but we’re never given a chance to catch our breath. Trips up and down higher-dimensional continuums, and backwards and forward in time are delivered in a welter of stream of consciousness imagery that just about manages to convey high weirdness, but which is then juxtaposed with strangely mundane excerpts from instruction manuals that undermine the cosmic bonkersness of it all.
Sullivan’s cosmology is given in a blur of scintillating sentences that, in the end, ask us to accept things just because. Peered at closely, it doesn’t hang together. The jokey asides, dinosaurs, angels, artifical intelligence, secret time agencies, odd bird creatures and end of all things make it seem that Sullivan is trying to have her cake and eat it in pretty much every way.
This all contributes to Occupy Me having a first draft feeling. It crashes down on us all of a rush, and although its wave of energy surges into the reader and carries us along, we’re eventually dumped spluttering and choking on the sand, wondering what the hell just happened. There are messages about post-colonial exploitation, corruption, causality, and being a decent sentient entity in there too. Good messages, all, but they’re almost lost in the Gordian Knot of the plot.
Occupy Me keeps the pages turning and the wheels of thought whirring. It’s a psychedelic experience, a wacky tapestry of idea. Sadly, it’s frayed around the edges, and the picture never quite emerges intact from all the blazing threads. Guy Haley
It’s a psychedelic experience, a wacky tapestry