Osiris by E. J. Swift
Reviewed by Martin Lewis
08 October 2012
Osiris is a microcosm of the world. Or, more accurately, it is the world; there is nothing else left.
Occasionally, when she was very drunk, Adelaide wondered if other cities had been like Osiris. If other great metropolises ate away at sanity by hurling people through their gates, more and more people, an overdose of life, until the crowds became drugged with their own gluttony. She studied photographs of lost civilizations and touched the imprints of the people in them and in her head she moved them to Osiris and watched their faces change. And sometimes she moved herself from Osiris to those long gone places and watched a different Adelaide walking on streets. (p. 169)
This sole surviving city-state is located on an oceanic shelf far off the coast of Patagonia. Originally conceived as a utopian experiment, it has been dramatically overtaken by events; extreme weather begat by climate change has wiped out life elsewhere, leaving it the last redoubt of humanity. This leaves Osiris as a tiny technocratic authoritarian paradise that is just beginning its dive into decadence. But if there is decay from within, there is also trouble form without.
Inevitably for an island nation with an iron grip on all the spoils that remain from the last gasp of civilization, there are boat people. These refugees settle in slums to the west of the city (a slightly facile inversion but one that at least nails its colors to the mast). As ever, they are not well received.
So the city acts as a microcosm of Now because it so clearly divides its inhabitants into the Haves and Have Nots, and Osiris is a novel that appears to have a fundamental and pressing question at its core. Why do rich countries—rich people—hate refugees? One obvious answer is simple racism: refugees are rapists and thieves, they spread disease, they are benefit cheats who will steal your job. Perhaps more than this, however, they present an insurmountable manifestation of cognitive dissonance. How can it be fair for you to have so much when they have so little? The answer, of course, is that it isn't, but there is no mental contortion that people will not subject themselves to in order to escape this inescapable conclusion. And we can draw the parameters of the question a bit wider than that to include not just the physically dislocated but refugees from capitalism itself; the poor might be the right color but they are undeniably the wrong type. The indigenous poor, after all, are as hated and feared as any foreigner.
In this respect Osiris is a disappointment. Rather than confronting the central dilemma that Swift's frame presents, we instead have to address a rather more basic question: what do the protagonists want?
Adelaide (who has renounced the illustrious family name of Rechnov and instead adopted the boho nom de partay Mystik) wants to know what has happened to her twin brother, Axel. There isn't much mystery to this for the reader since, in the prologue, he commits suicide by jumping into the sea. Everyone else in Osiris assumes exactly the same but Addie nonetheless spends half the novel investigating this absence. Perhaps this is a bold narrative strategy but it is not one that pays dividends.
Vikram's desires are less clear. A Westerner, he wants something for his people, a measure of justice that he tries to articulate to the great and good on the floor of the council chambers:
This is a very beautiful room. . . . It is also a very warm room. Nobody on this side of the city has much occasion to dwell on warmth—and why should you? Our city was built to make such day-to-day necessities invisible. And yet, on the other side of a line that a past Council has decreed a boundary, people die daily from cold. I've seen it many times. (p. 236)
He is ignored. This gets us close to our central question but Vikram wants something for himself too. He isn't sure what this is, though, and his personality seems both repressed by himself and suppressed by Swift. In the end, he reads more like a foil for Addie than his own man (a judgement strengthened by the novel's denouement).
So they are a disappointing pair, but let's have some praise before I proceed to the deathblow. Osiris is smart. Too often SF offers only the skeleton of ideas or the skin but Swift digs down into the flesh of her fictional city. On this score, I would recommend Niall Harrison's inventory of the world's texture and the totality of its ocean in his review for the Los Angeles Review of Books. For my own part, I will say that Swift is best at her milieu, on both sides of the tracks. When we are in the slums we feel the desperation and the vibrancy of poverty. We believe in a world where even the simplest of pleasures must be hard won: "Drake elbowed a man who was trying to inhale the smoke from her cigarette" (p.133). When we are in the glittering cage of the city, we feel the desperation and stagnancy of excess. We believe in a world where old prejudices are re-configured into new shapes to become the subject of icy jousts:
"Nice to see a Rechnov girl. Great men in your family, of course, quite a line, but few women. Which would you prefer, a boy or girl?"
Adelaide took a demure sip of weqa.
"I hear the abortion rate is very high these days," she said.
The Councillor looked surprised but nodded. "A valid fact. Pregnancy is a serious notion for any young woman."
She was not sure whether he was hinting at her as a potential breeder, or trying to gauge her attitude to the practice. (p. 267)
In fair Osiris, the atmosphere is not just salt water and frosty air; blood thrums through the city's veins as well as those of our two protagonists. There is an inevitability to the romance that forms between Addie and Vikram but it is nice to read a science fiction novel that embraces prickly, sexy girl-boy tension. Too often SF offers only chastity, rape, and robo-whores; Swift knows that sex offers greater possibilities than that, not the least of which is communication (or even communion). But, regardless of how smart or sexy Osiris is, it is also stale—above all, it is safe.
Is that a fair accusation to level at a debut novelist? I think it is, but let's set some context first. Osiris is published by Night Shade Books, a company not without its troubles but one which has deliberately and admirably placed itself at the vanguard of contemporary SF. As well as Swift, over the last couple of years they have published science fiction debuts by Kameron Hurley, Will McIntosh, Rob Ziegler and, most famously, Paolo Bacigalupi. There is not a publisher with a better record on this score and their record is equally good on other fronts: Swift's neutral initials conceal the fact she is a woman, and a British woman at that. It is telling that she has not been published in her own country first (although Random House will be launching their Del Rey imprint in Britain in 2013 so both Swift and Hurley will receive belated UK editions in the near future).
Nonetheless, despite this fundamentally progressive approach, both publisher and writer have made equally fundamentally conservative choices. For Swift, that is to play it safe artistically: the two placeholder protagonists representing philosophies as much as people, the interleaving chapters getting shorter and faster as they go, the third person narrative that cares a bit about voice but more about story. It turns out that at the novel's heart is not a question about how we live our lives now but instead a conspiracy. There is always a bloody conspiracy. Whether it is fantasy's palace intrigue or SF's corporate secrets, there is always a piece of hidden knowledge that will unlock the world. But, of course, there isn't. With wearying inevitability, the novel climaxes with a set piece action scene (it is safe to say such scenes are not Swift's strong point). In this way, the novel's potential ends up dribbling away down the plug hole.
There is a problem beyond this, though, a problem with contemporary SF as a whole. Osiris, like The Windup Girl by Bacigalupi (widely heralded as the most important science fiction debut of the last decade), addresses itself to the central problem of post-Twentieth Century life but makes no attempt to escape the trap of the trappings of modern genre fiction. What one might call Resource SF could make a vital contribution to literature but the commitment only ever seems to be political rather than artistic. The only novel I can think of that attempts both is Adam Roberts's By Light Alone (2011). The concerns are similar to Swift's—the remorseless march of the Gini coefficient bears its inevitable fruit—but it seeks to be not just a science fiction novel but a novel in its own right. No one else seems to be trying.
The second problem is that Night Shade Books have played it safe commercially. It is conventional to say at this point that Swift is a writer who shows potential, that she is one to watch, that I might look forward to what she does next. But I don't look forward to her next book because I already know what it is. This novel is safest not in its content or execution but in its format—this is a third, not a novel. The novel's conclusion guts the book by demanding another day and another dollar from the reader. I don't want that, the book doesn't need it and, if the author does want to write a complete (in every sense of the word) novel one day, I doubt she will be helped by the decision.