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A while back, I posted about Hal Duncan’s debut novel, Vellum, and said that while Duncan has much going for him as a writer, I felt his approach to his world made his story less effective than it might otherwise have been. More recently, I’ve been reading Justina Robson’s Living Next-Door to the God of Love, and for me it contrasts with Vellum in a couple of interesting ways.

You could argue, in some ways, that Living Next-Door has complimentary strengths and weaknesses to Vellum. On the one hand, Robson is not as good at writing sentences as Duncan. In particular, she rarely creates a convincing sense of place, whereas many of the settings Duncan visits in Vellum are extremely well-drawn. She is also less good at voice; both novels feature multiple first-person narrators, but Duncan is better at making them distinctive and different.

On the other hand, however, Robson is better at constructing her story. Duncan’s prose may be fluid, and the short sharp segments may be deliberate, but they come across at times as blog gas (as John Clute’s recent review of Vellum memorably puts it). And for me, a significant problem with Duncan’s book was that the vellum felt too much like a literary construct, and not enough like a believable reality. If I believed the story was aiming for a sense of artificiality this wouldn’t be a problem, but it seems to me that Duncan wants us to believe in, be impressed by, the size and scope of the vellum; and as I said in my earlier post, in the end it feels small to me. Like one human imagination, not the limitless possibility of a universe.

Living Next-Door to the God of Love, by contrast, and among its other virtues, evokes infinity with some skill. The book is a (very) loose follow-up to Robson’s previous novel, Natural History. That story ended with humanity grabbing the possibilities offered by Stuff – essentially, magic – with both hands. Living Next-Door starts in a setting where Stuff, and the intelligence behind it known as Unity, can make entire universes for humans to play in. As in Vellum, mind shapes reality. The first chapter, for instance, is set in Metropolis, a universe where anyone can be any hero they want to be. Parts of the book are set in Sankhara, a city in which massive arcologies are just a few blocks away from dirty industrial fantasy. It’s described as ‘high interaction’, and it gets reshaped nightly, according to the dreams of the people who live there (shades of Dark City, at times).

Writing about Vellum, I used Stephen Baxter as an example of a writer who effectively evokes a sense of infinity. The particular example I used was the opening of Time, which speaks to the emptiness of a universe in which humans are the only intelligence. Robson doesn’t use that trick, but she does get to use a similar one; as I said, Unity is an alien intelligence, so instead of a sense of emptiness you get a sense that humans are not the only ones doing the dreaming. But the moment that particularly impressed me is yet another trick, what you might call the experience of immensity. Baxter uses this, too, quite frequently, as for example at the start of Exultant, which pitches us headfirst into a galactic-scale battlefront from the perspective of a young fighter pilot:
He was deep in the Mass, as pilots called it – the Central Star Mass officially, a jungle of millions of stars crammed into a ball just thirty light years across, a core within the Core. Before him a veil of stars hung before a background of turbulent, glowing gas; he could see filaments and wisps light years long, drawn out by the Galaxy’s magnetic field. This stellar turmoil bubbled and boiled on scales of space and time beyond the human, as if he had been caught at the centre of a frozen explosion. (3–4)
This is pure telling, and in that sense perhaps not very sophisticated. But it works: you can see the stars in front of you. Now, here is the comparable moment in Living Next-Door, in which a regular human researcher is given a glimpse of Sankhara’s cosmology. The speaker is his guide:
Space. And scattered within it, glittering dust.


We fell again. The number of musical scales exploded, dominated by the relentless seething fury of the stars in their speeding dance as they whirled around the galactic nucleus. Disk stars and gas were so loud I couldn’t stand to look at them. Halo stars sang in almost single notes by comparison – a relief.

We saw one star.

‘Sankhara’s star.’ (200)
There are a couple of things I like about this. Firstly is the fact that she didn’t have to do it at all - but given that she did, like the fact that Unity is non-human, the revelation that Sankhara is not just a planet (as we have been assuming) but an entire universe reinforces how big an arena the story is taking place in, and how small the characters are in relation to it. The second is that where Baxter bludgeons you with blunt scale, Robson personalises it. Not only does she zoom-in, from widescreen to tight focus, but she shows you what effect it is having on the person seeing it; you feel it that bit more.[1]

The reason this matters is that all three stories – Vellum, Exultant, Living Next-Door to the God of Love – are, to a greater or lesser extent, depicting human actions on a vast canvas. For the actions of the characters in these stories to convince, we have to be able to see them in relation to that canvas. All this is sleight-of-hand: of course Robson’s novel doesn’t literally contain anything outside human experience. But it feels like it does.

I could draw other points of comparison between the two novels as well. For instance, the majority of the humans in Vellum are unaware that their world is but a scratch on the vast yadda yadda, while in Living Next-Door everyone knows what Stuff is and what it does; it gives them a metaphysical certainty that they can control their lives that subtly affects the way they act. Too, both novels investigate layers of character. Vellum has the conceit that Seamus Finnigan is Shamash is Prometheus is Sammael, back past all the shadows on the cave wall to the true character. We are all made of our predecessors, and that can affect us. In Living Next-Door, Unity can absorb other beings into itself, in a process called translation. Avatars of Unity are described as ‘eating’ other characters, taking them within themselves; among other things it’s another metaphor for how we carry others in our memories, and how coming to understand the experiences of others can, again, affect and change us.

But maybe that will be material for another post. In the meantime, I don’t have a conclusion, save maybe to say – this is why getting the science fiction of a story right is important. If you’re hoping to tell human stories in fantastic contexts, your fantastic contexts have to support your human stories. That’s why, in the end, I’ll pick a book like Living Next-Door to the God of Love over a book like Vellum every day of the week.

[1] To be perfectly correct, in Exultant, the character seeing the galaxy – Pirius – has been bred in space, and raised to be accustomed to that sort of vista, so the lack of reaction is actually characterisation. But there are similar moments in other Baxter novels that don’t have that excuse; I’m just too lazy to find them at the moment.
Very nice. Thanks. No further comment :)
I have been meaning to read 'Living Next Door to the God of Love'. You mention it's a loose follow up to 'Natural History' (which I mildy enjoyed) - does it othwewise stand-alone?

Jay Tomio E.
Yes. There are none of the same characters, and all the relevant backstory is explained. I suspect you'll feel a little more comfortable with the setting having read Natural History, but not massively so, given that so much of it is new.

I thought Natural History was good, and I think this is better.