Reading Osiris by E J Swift

And for a change, a review that is original to this blog, though it’s been floating around in my files for a little while. I have a review of Cataveiro (2014) upcoming in Vector, and a review of Tamaruq in a forthcoming issue of Interzone.

Osiris – E J Swift
(Nightshade Books, 2012)

I’ve found it difficult to write about Osiris by E.J. Swift. Not because I didn’t like the novel – in fact, I liked it very much indeed, and enjoyed the sequels too – but because I found it so very intense as a novel, so elliptical and elusive. Which is perhaps what one might expect from a novel about a city whose inhabitants believe themselves to be the last people left in the world. Yet the first mystery in this novel is what has actually happened? We are told that sea levels rose sharply, causing flooding, and this was just the last straw on top of other catastrophes. Boatloads of refugees found their way to the city, but after a while no more came, and nothing more was heard from the outside world.

For those who did make it to Osiris, the city has proved to be less of a sanctuary than they might have hoped. The novel is a little vague about exactly how long ago the refugees arrived in the city, but it seems that about a hundred years have passed,  and ever since they arrived the refugees and their descendants been corralled in the western quarter of the city, in desperately overcrowded conditions, struggling to survive. In the eastern part of the city the original Osirian settlers live comparatively comfortable lives, while the city’s rulers deny themselves nothing, and live surrounded by every kind of extravagance.

This vagueness about certain things does not arise from poor storytelling on Swift’s part. Instead, it gradually becomes clear that vagueness, among other things, has become institutionalised within the city’s upper echelons. The ruling council is a bureaucratic nonsense, intended to continually defer any unpleasant decision to another day; its protocols appear deliberately designed to exclude anyone who doesn’t not already know how the system works. Indeed, once you consider that keeping the refugees in the western quarter has persisted as a temporary measure for at least a hundred years, it becomes clear that Osiris’s governing structure is moribund. That the city functions at all is another mystery, although it is clear that the council relies heavily on a notably repressive police force. And the city’s future is uncertain, as it is running out of natural resources, although this is another thing that the council doesn’t seem especially worried about.

If vagueness has become institutionalised, so have paranoia, ennui, and hopelessness. It is difficult to understand what it is that the ruling elite fears so much that they have so deliberately turned in on themselves, and yet worry still about maintaining face in front of their colleagues. Indeed, it is almost as though they no longer know themselves. A significant portion of the youngest generation pursue lives filled with hedonistic pleasures, but which are effectively devoid of meaning. They allow themselves the luxury of ennui or else pursue seemingly pointless hobbies. Those who attempt to become involved with the running of the city are viewed with suspicion by their elders, as though they dread the slightest change.

On the other side of the divide, the westerners long for change, but a repressive regime coupled with so many previous failures brought them to a situation where, while the activists may plot against the city, they lack any real desire to foment revolution, or indeed the skill to do so. Occasionally, a talented or charismatic leader may arise, someone like Vikram Bai, might make some brief headway, but the sense is always that he or she is doomed to fail. Apathy is the killer. Eking out a living leaves little time or energy for a revolution.

Even on the other side of the divide, where Adelaide Rechnov’s twin brother has vanished, although Adelaide suspects foul play, her attempts to find out what happened to her brother are, at best, inept, and at worst being covertly controlled by her own father, who wants to suppress the incident. And the point is that this is not about Axel’s disappearance, the cause of which is self-evident but about Adelaide’s inability to grieve properly because, like almost everyone else, she is emotionally stunted.

It is only when she is more or less tricked into acting as Vikram’s patron, guiding him through the coils of the City’s bureaucracy as he endeavours to secure better conditions for the westerners, that Adelaide discovers some sort of purpose. Even then, it is not the one that we might initially expect. Axel’s death is put to one side as the two come to realise that there are survivors beyond the city, and that the city has hidden this fact for almost a century.

To get to this point is to not so much read this novel as to shoulder one’s way through it. Not because the prose is bad (though there are moments when it is perhaps a little overwrought) but because the misery and desperation of the people are so palpable. Thousands of them are effectively shut up in a tin can in the ocean because for a few people the thought of engaging with outsiders is intolerable. There is, of course, more to it than that, but  this will not become clear until much, much later. As this novel closes, we know only that someone is very keen indeed to suppress the knowledge that the outside world is still there and still functioning.

By this point, Vikram, having apparently succeeded in persuading the city to listen to him, now works on behalf of the refugees, while Adelaide, having been kept imprisoned by her family, manages to escape into the western quarter, only to be recognised. The novel closes with each believing the other lost. Vikram is on a boat to the mainland, almost as though someone might want to get rid of him, while he believes that Adelaide has drowned.

Osiris is a hugely stressful novel to read, with all that emotion and uncertainty crammed between the pages. The terrible plight of the westerners is set against the disgusting refusal of the elite to care about anyone but themselves, but none of this is tempered by a rational explanation. One might wonder how it has come to this but Swift plays her cards very close to her chest. Only much later will we realise it was always going to be this way. For now we can only marvel at a society that is so self-absorbed it cannot see that it is doomed unless it admits that change is not only necessary but inevitable. And even that is not the half of what is going on.

That’s one of the things I like about this novel, that it confounds expectation all the way, and indeed the entire Osiris Project will continue to head off in unexpected directions, keeping the reader guessing until the end. It’s a bold move to eschew the obvious narrative structures and try something different, but I think it works well. Though perhaps you only realise just how claustrophobic Osiris really is when you begin to read Cataveiro and are suddenly thrust into a world of intense brightness and seemingly infinite space.