The Rose and the Entire by Kay KenyonNovember 5, 2010 at 1:17 am | Posted in 2 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | 2 Comments
Tags: Kay Kenyon
I’ve never been very impressed with “science fantasy” as a label. In my fairly limited experience, most stories end up being either science fiction or fantasy. I don’t want to go down the well-traveled road of defining what the difference might be…wherever you draw the line, you know it when you see it, and I usually feel like the line is narrow enough there’s nothing that’s somehow both. For example, to me Star Wars and Book of the New Sun (how often are those two lumped together?) are fantasy while Charles Stross’ Merchant Princes series is science fiction.
All that said, I would characterize Kay Kenyon’s four book series The Entire and the Rose as science fantasy. I do so because this is the only story I can remember reading that manages to be simultaneously fantasy and science fiction. How is this possible? I was going to draw an analogy to quantum superposition, but now that I think about it, if I’m going to butcher physics in the name of metaphor, I think the wave-particle duality of light is a better example. Just as light sometimes acts like a particle and sometimes acts like a wave, The Entire and the Rose alternates between its two natures. I think this failure to commit to one genre or the other substantially weakens the series (whether or not the same is true of the nature of light, I couldn’t tell you) and I hope to explain why.
The story opens with an uncompromising SF voice: on a space station many light years from Earth, the powerful AI that controls an FTL-enabling wormhole has essentially gone mad, causing a major disaster. From there we are given a brief look at the Earth of this future, nexus of a fledgling interstellar civilization but also a corporatist dystopia. Because only geniuses can understand the physics and information theory required to be productive in the future, the vast majority of ordinary people just cash generous unemployment checks and play virtual reality video games. One of these geniuses is our protagonist, a pilot named Titus Quinn. His brother is, alas, only several standard deviations smarter than average and thus is constantly in peril of losing his job and having to go on welfare (that this would be a fate only slightly better than death is taken for granted by all the characters from Earth, and I suppose by the author, but I was not convinced the dignity of working for a living would be so alluring as to be preferred to life of ease and entertainment).
So far, since the gears of FTL travel are greased with a healthy portion of quantum mechanics terminology, this is all fairly standard science fiction. Getting to know the main character, Titus Quinn, we find that he is a broken man. While piloting a passenger vessel through the book’s hyperspace-analogue, Something Went Wrong and the ship was lost with all hands…except him. That he would be feeling sole-survivor guilt is hardly surprising, but it turns out he also came back with fragmentary memories of getting into an escape capsule with his wife and daughter and then spending years in some mysterious alternate universe. The multinational corporation (really a multistellar corporation I guess) who employs him swept this crazy talk under the rug and stashed him in comfortable but isolated early retirement on Earth. No fantasy reader (for the series is making a slow transition into fantasy here) will be surprised to find out that Titus’ hazy memories of an encounter with the fantastic were in fact real and that everyone else was wrong. The fact is, Titus’ story sounds a lot less crazy when you consider he appeared out of nowhere on a totally unrelated planet months after the accident, but this is only the first of many times that circumstances bend to the needs of the plot.
In any case, eventually some people realize Titus was right all along and have to come and apologize. It seems there’s a universe next door that’s accessible using quantum mechanical means, and they want to send him back to…well, it’s not totally clear what he’s supposed to do there. He had learned the language, so he certainly would be a useful member of a team, but why send him alone? As with any new technology there’s a lot of risk involved, but surely evil corporations aren’t too afraid to risk human lives? In fact, given he’s the only one who knows the language, he’s probably too valuable to send at all. But it makes a better book if he goes back alone, so go back he does. He’s supposed to get the lay of the land so that the evil corporation can evilly profit from it, but he goes along with the plan so that he can find his wife and daughter.
I know I’ve spent a lot more time than I usually do with summary, but I haven’t even begun to cover everything from the opening quarter of the first book. The other universe is called The Entire, and it’s by far the most impressive part of the series. Unlike our universe, the Entire was created by a super-advanced alien race called the Tarig, and it is constructed far differently, with an endless landscape instead of planets and stars and vacuum. The Tarig have created a variety of intelligent species to live in their universe, but unlike the Entire, these races are not wholly novel, but are copies of species the Tarig saw living in our universe. So the Chalin people are human-analogues, for example, and there are a range of other species as well. From a science fiction perspective, these other species are not very impressive. Most are either animal-based like the telepathic horse-analogue Inyx or else seem like man-in-suit Star Trek aliens.
The exception is the Tarig themselves, who struck me as impressively alien. Throughout the series they are a constantly intriguing cipher. Where did they come from? Why did they create the Entire and its peoples? What do they want? While the ultimate answers to these questions are not, in the end, particularly compelling, their odd behaviors, strange mannerisms, and unpredictable decisions amount to a very successful portrait of an alien psychology, one which makes the Entire’s other aliens look uninspired by comparison.
However, upon reaching the Entire it swiftly becomes obvious that, although the language of science fiction is still used when discussing the Tarig and their universe, the story has transitioned into fantasy. This is a crossing-over fantasy, and the Entire draws heavily on traditions about faerie. The strange, capricious ruling Tarig are startling and fresh when viewed through the lens of science fiction, but when considered within the tradition of fairy kings and queens they seem much more run-of-the-mill. Their alternatively cruel and possessive attitudes toward Titus and his family, for example, are never satisfactorily explained, but are similar to fairy interactions from stories about changelings and human kidnappings. As another example, the fact that the Bright, the ever-glowing sky of the Entire, grants long life to races living there cannot possibly be explained scientifically, but life extension is a familiar property of otherwordly locales.
Reading Bright of the Sky, the series’ first book, none of this bothered me very much. It’s not afraid to take its time, introducing the reader first to the science fiction world of future Earth and then, in an even longer and more meandering sequence, to the fantastic world of the Entire. Despite the slow pace, eventually matters come to a head, swashes are buckled, and Titus Quinn saves the day. Sort of. Actually, from the beginning, Titus Quinn is something of an odd duck as a protagonist. When we first meet him, he’s emotionally ruined, perhaps even mentally ill. His grueling experiences in the Entire, and whatever caused his memory to fragment upon leaving, has left him a shell of his former self and almost incapable of relating to other people. Upon reaching the Entire, however, he immediately becomes a ultra-competent protagonist, navigating difficult social and cultural situations and without even meaning to enchanting the people around him. I found that a difficult transition to swallow, but was willing to roll with it. The new Titus Quinn is a good fellow with some hard edges, and sometimes the series comes close to becoming an interesting depiction of the callousing, or even corruption, of a conscience. At one point he has an ethical lapse of almost Thomas Covenent proportions, but the series lets him off the hook for it later on.
As the series goes on, however, its flaws become more manifest. One of these, the rather loose plot, is perhaps the most serious, but also the least interesting, so I’m only going to discuss it briefly. I’ve already alluded to the series being guilty of taking shortcuts to move the plot along. Sticking just to the very beginning so as not to spoil anything, I’ve already asked why send just Titus? To that can be added, why did Anzi make her original and very important choice? Why does Helice want to personally go to the Entire? All these things are explained, usually many times over, but the explanations are always “small” when compared to the enormous risks involved. These are just at the beginning of the story, but similar issues crop up throughout the series (for example I found Lamar’s actions in book three to be a long series of non-sequiturs).
I also had a problem with Kenyon’s mechanics. Normally I don’t go in for style criticism. Generally I appreciate distinctive styles but I don’t mind science fiction’s trademark “transparent prose” however maligned it might be in some quarters. Kenyon is mainly on the transparent side of the spectrum, but she does one unusual thing, and that’s use a third person perspective that’s not limited. Or if it is limited, one that swaps points of view in mid-conversation. Being a style agnostic I never paid much attention to the interminable (or so I find them) debates among authors and would-be authors about third person omniscient, third person limited, etc. but frankly switching viewpoints so abruptly is flat out confusing. There were many occasions where I had to stop and back up a few lines to properly attribute a thought or feeling. The story didn’t seem to be getting much mileage out of this, so I’m surprised it wasn’t written in third person limited like (I think?) most modern science fiction and fantasy stories are.
Before I get to my more interesting criticisms, I must warn you that spoilers will crop up, though I’ll try to minimize them.
For a series that is, at its heart, a combination of adventure fantasy and space opera, the villains of The Rose and the Entire suffer from (to borrow a phrase from that dean of modern space opera, Iain M. Banks) a significant gravitas shortfall. Initially Titus Quinn faces off against the Tarig, and their combination of power and unpredictability make them entertaining enemies. Unfortunately, while there are many different Tarig with fairly different personalities, Titus’ particular antagonist Hadenth is by far the least interesting. Where the other Tarig are strange, Hadenth seems to be mentally ill, but the book never makes clear if this is true, and if so why (yes, it implies that his earlier interaction with Titus left him much the worse for wear, but his aberrant behavior seems to go much farther back). Why the other Tarig, generally represented as subtle and intelligent, respected someone who invariably acts either insane or like a mustache twirling psychopath isn’t explained.
But as the series’ scope expands and the stakes climb, Hadenth and even the Tarig are left behind. When Helice takes over as one of the main villains, she’s a substantial step down. Whereas the Tarig, fairy associations or not, were never far from the science fiction side of the story, Helice’s quest to destroy our entire universe is more in line with a fantasy story. Her plan makes her sound like a Saturday morning cartoon villain, but she’s supposed to be the smartest character in the story. It’s important to note that even if she completely succeeded, all she would accomplish would be to create a tiny human colony in the Entire, a colony living under the thumb of the Tarig. Meanwhile, like a black hole, her ridiculous scheme is so beyond the pale it distorts the story, forcing characters whose morals could accurately be equated with Adolf Hitler’s on to the side of the good guy protagonist. Finally, while the idea that a successful, socially adapted person like herself would be such a monster is just barely believable, the fact she somehow convinces thousands of people to join her conspiracy without any leaks made it utterly impossible for me to suspend any disbelief. Here the combination of fantasy with science fiction is working against the series. When the dark lord Sauron tries dominate the world, I don’t have a problem, but Helice and her enormous number of co-conspirators are humans from Earth and I expect a few of them to at least occasionally act like it.
Of course, the final villain is Geng De, who comes out of nowhere in the middle of the series. As a character he is wholly of the fantasy genre, wielding magic powers over reality, attempting to fulfill a prophecy, and one-upping Helice by seeking not only to destroy one universe but to mind-control everyone in all the others. Unlike Helice, Geng De is not a high functioning individual, and he’s not associated in any way with the science fiction side of the story, so he’s much easier to swallow. But he’s even more of a cartoon villain than Helice (who at least is the subject of some unsuccessful attempts to humanize, especially towards the end of her run) by virtue of being a cackling child predator on top of everything else.
In a long series like this, villains like Helice and Geng De are boring. For one thing, there’s not even a whiff of dramatic tension surrounding their plans. While there’s a small chance the Entire could be destroyed, as readers we know that never in a million years is Helice going to succeed in destroying our universe, and that Geng De will certainly not win either. For another, although both these characters are theoretically human, neither of them follow plausible psychological routes to their villainy, which makes them feel like they are evil from authorial fiat.
But the tension between fantasy and science fiction goes beyond just the villains. Again and again, situations crop up that would be fine in a fantasy novel but seem inappropriate in one using the language of science fiction. For example, whenever push comes to shove, the Tarig–creators of an entire universe, wielders of unimaginable energies, ancient beyond human reckoning–settle their differences with Titus Quinn and even each other by fighting with swords or knives. When Frank Herbert insisted that his far less technologically advanced humans fight with knives, he at least came up with a cute science fictional reason. Kenyon doesn’t venture an explanation, and again, if this is fantasy, why not? Although even in a fantasy, you’d think a race of wizards would know a fireball spell or two.
The worst of these problems, however, was the politics of the Entire. In City Without End and Prince of Storms most of the political plot points have to do with several leaders jockeying for power. It’s taken for granted that, while control of the bureaucrats and the armies are nice, legitimacy is ultimately derived by appeal to the people, who seem to quickly form powerful allegiances to specific individuals. But the people, in this case, are scattered across a landscape that stretches light years, and while there is reasonably fast travel, news moves very slowly if at all. We see no newspapers, and in fact no mass media whatsoever save the dreams of the Inyx. Yet in the fourth book, a wholly novel form of government is introduced on the realm essentially by slight of hand and it somehow assumes a very strong inertia. It’s true, incidentally, that the Inyx sendings are a form of mass media, but other than the extremely implausible discrediting of the Tarig (why their nature is universally considered disgusting throughout the Entire is one of those plot shortcuts), most political alignments take place without their assistance.
To me, in contrast to fantasy sword fights in a science fiction setting, this is a case of a science fiction regime change in a fantasy setting. In just about every attribute important to politics (to name but a few: the speed of travel and communication, the sophistication of its populace, and the complete lack of historical precedents for political chance) the Entire works according to the rules of the past, yet the political turmoil follows patterns of modern societies. Instead of distant regions rebelling or putting forward their own candidates, people simply line up behind one or the other coalition. No mention is made of buying the loyalty of the army even though that’s been the only legitimacy that matters in virtually every similar situation right up to the present.
It’s a common foible of both science fiction and fantasy to have the good guys defeat the evil government at the end of the story and simply take it for granted that replacing it is no sweat, so I appreciated that most of Prince of Storms was concerned with creating a new and better order. It was extremely disappointing, however, that this new and better order meant replacing Tarig oligarchy with a monarch. Much is made over the danger that power is corrupting the man in charge throughout the fourth book, yet somehow the solution to that is just giving the throne to his daughter and letting her be the absolute monarch. Ignored in this happy ending is the fact this same daughter has spent two books being completely corrupted by much smaller amounts of power, not to mention the woman she regarded as a mother seems to have been a racial supremacist.
Now, look, if we’ve learning anything in the last few years, it’s that creating a democracy in a place that’s never had it before isn’t easy. Had the characters considered democracy and rejected it, I might or might not have been convinced by their reasoning, but at least they would have thought about it. As it is, characters from an Earth that probably hasn’t seen anything resembling a monarchy in a hundred years or more all take it for granted that monarchy is the appropriate means of governing the Entire.
Now in fantasy novels monarchy is frequently taken for granted, although in the last few decades that’s been changing. But again, The Rose and the Entire isn’t really a fantasy series and there are plenty of examples its characters could draw from. Its Earth seems to be governed more or less like it is now and the super-advanced Paion govern themselves using a computerized hive-mind that seems to achieve similar results to city state direct democracy. Admittedly, the Earth is portrayed as dominated by greedy corporations, but these same greedy corporations save the day in City Without End, and in any case surely things aren’t so bad enough to warrant throwing out a millennium of political thought? Usually I find that fantasy novel protagonists are inexplicably modern, full of anachronistic ideas about class and gender equality. This is one of the only times where I’ve found them far too old fashioned.
From the nature of these complaints, I’ll guess that if The Rose and the Entire were rewritten as wholly fantasy or wholly science fiction, I would probably like either better than the actual series. I don’t know that this is a problem I would have with all science fantasy stories since, for one thing, my definition of science fantasy is obviously so narrow that there probably aren’t very many. In any case, although the series is really one continuous story, Bright of the Sky doesn’t do a bad job of standing on its own, so it may be worth checking out. Certainly the Entire is an impressive bit of worldbuilding, and most of the reviews of the series have been far more positive than mine. Unfortunately, for me the series as a whole is more interesting than it is good.