Reading Astra by Naomi Foyle

A review from Interzone last year.

Astra: Book One of The Gaia Chronicles

Naomi Foyle, Jo Fletcher Books, 379pp

We tell one another stories to amuse and entertain ourselves, but we tell them also to commemorate, to educate, and, in the most extreme cases, to support an ideology. Astra, the novel’s eponymous protagonist, lives in a community that lays great emphasis on storytelling. The founding myths of Is-land are told over and over in elaborate community ceremonies by people who are only one or two generations removed from those pioneers. It reinforces their sense of who they are and where they’ve come from, but the stories also seem to act as blinkers.

Is-land itself is a small state located somewhere east of present-day Europe, which was created in the wake of a global economic and environmental collapse by refugees from ecological and neo-pagan communities in what was once the UK. While the details of this collapse are necessarily sketchy – when the novel opens Astra is a child, and as the story is told entirely from her point of view, the reader is entirely reliant on her childish apprehension of these stories – it is clear that the community has worked hard to protect its existence and maintain its philosophy. The communities of Is-land see themselves as working to heal the earth, in Is-land at least; their borders are sealed, to keep out those who would abuse the earth, and they refer to those beyond the Boundary as Non-landers. Is-landers live communally, grow their own food, make their own textiles, build low-impact houses, compost, recycle. Some communities have a relaxed attitude to the human body, eschew clothes and go ‘skyclad’. Yet even through Astra’s unquestioning gaze the reader already notes oddities. Where do the raw materials come from for the Tablettes which are such a feature of every child’s life? Why must the children serve a mandatory term with IMBOD, policing Is-land’s boundaries? Why is so great an emphasis laid on research involving genetic manipulation? For that matter, why does IMBOD seem to take such an interest in every aspect of the children’s lives?

The novel’s crisis is precipitated by two events, the first of which is Astra’s Shelter-mother, Hokma, persuading her to evade the Security shot, the preliminary to beginning training with IMBOD. Hokma’s concern is that this ‘shot’ suppresses children’s creativity and imagination, making them more open to IMBOD training and easier to manage. The other event is the arrival of Lil, who has grown up without the benefit of community education, raised by a Non-lander father who has taught her a very different version of history. Lil, unlike Astra, does not see Is-land as a paradise and constantly challenges Astra’s vision of the place.

For the outsider it is quite clear where this story is going, but the narrative is taken at Astra’s pace which means that we follow her rather too slowly through adolescence, preoccupied with such events as the Blood and Seed Ceremony, sporadically wondering why what she is told doesn’t match Lil’s stories, gradually realising that she has not been told the whole truth. Always, there is the background concern as to when, not whether, she will be discovered. This is fine so long as we are interested in Astra herself but despite her secret Astra is mostly an ordinary child, who takes everything pretty much at face value, and that is what the reader is given. Added to that, her world is not only familiar to her but is familiar to anyone who has read a lot of utopian or dystopian fiction. Much of what is actually going must go unremarked on by Astra because she simply doesn’t have access to it. As adult readers we might note that the general community seems either to be kept in ignorance or to deliberately maintain such a stance but without an adult viewpoint we cannot know, not until the end of the novel, and even then there are only hints. Too often it seems that Astra is a vehicle for Foyle to show us round the world she has created, and the action will only properly start in the second volume of the series.

Foyle has commented in articles that she is especially interested in the domestic in sf but while I’m sympathetic to the notion, domestic is not the same as ordinary. An author has to work very hard to make the ordinary seem compelling and I do not think that Foyle fully achieves this. Is-land’s stories about itself succeed so well that its inhabitants cannot see past them; for the reader, heavily reliant on one of those characters for information, the story behind the story remains mostly inaccessible, as a result of which the novel itself can never fully come to life.