Tag Archives: e j swift

Archive: Reading Tamaruq by E.J. Swift

It’s been a while since I posted any of my Interzone reviews, so it’s time to catch up. This review originally appeared in Interzone 258 (May-June 2015).

E.J. Swift, Del Rey, 432pp

E.J Swift’s Osiris (2012) portrayed a society whose rulers apparently gloried in their own insularity, while concealing a truly shocking secret. This inward-turning was reflected in the novel’s intricately wrought prose, which seemed to physically resist the reader’s attempts to engage, as well as in the claustrophobic imagery Swift used. The divide between the haves – the ruling elite of Osiris – and the have-nots, the refugees who had arrived there in the wake of one ecological catastrophe too many – was enacted in the division of the city into quarters, but manifest too in the relationship between Adelaide Rechnov, daughter of an elite family, and Vikram Bai, an activist from the other side of the city.

Cataveiro (2014) ejected us into the outside world, with its dizzyingly open spaces, more freedom than the average Osirian could ever imagine. Again, the writing reflected this in images that seemed almost to burn the eyes, they were so bright. And yet, as the reader quickly came to realise, the world beyond Osiris had precisely the same set of problems, only writ much larger, its protagonists more anonymous, hiding behind intermediaries. Because Osiris was, of course, always a microcosm of that outside world.

Cataveiro explored this from several perspectives. Vikram, only survivor of an Osirian expedition to Patagonia, found himself on the run from the Patagonian authorities, eager to make political capital out of his arrival, and befriended by Taeo Ybanez, hoping to use Vikram as a way to facilitate his own return to Antarctica. Through their eyes the reader saw life as it was experienced by most of Patagonia’s inhabitants – brutal and repressive. And yet, knowing there was a world beyond the immediate provided perhaps a little more room for hope, even though there was often little to choose between life in the western quarter of Osiris and in the slums of Cataveiro.

Ramona Callejas, self-taught pilot and cartographer, had all the space in the world, but was obliged to protect her freedom to fly by making maps for the authorities. Yet her intense scrutiny of the landscape was also directed towards protecting those communities she encountered on her journeys, and trying to protect her people as best she could. Eventually, she discovered that people were being kidnapped and taken north, including her own mother. This prompted her to follow the people traffickers, hoping to rescue her mother and find out what was happening.

Having shifted from the microscopic focus of Osiris to the wide-angle lens of Cataveiro, it is perhaps unsurprising that Tamaruq, the final volume of the Osiris Project, takes a different narrative approach again. Necessary, too, given that there are now so many different perspectives in play, so many ‘voices’ clamouring to be heard. Vikram is even more interesting to the authorities now that he has survived, inexplicably, redfleur, the Ebola-like disease ravaging the world. Ramona has found her way onto a cargo ship where the abductees are being held. And, Adelaide Rechnov has survived near-drowning and intense psychological distress, only to find herself in the hands of the would-be revolutionaries. More unexpectedly, she has finally realised that she can indeed find common cause with them.

This time the novel is a-flutter with pieces of information, from sources of all kinds. Alongside the narratives of Ramona, Vikram and Adelaide, there are extracts from correspondence and radio messages, as well as lengthy extracts from the journal kept by a researcher into redfleur, working at Tamaruq, a research station in the Alaskan desert. This last is discovered by Ramona when she breaches the station’s security, finds out what is actually going on there, and uncovers a link to Osiris. It’s tempting to suppose we’re seeing the story from the point of view of the enigmatic Alaskan, whose presence formed the core of Cataveiro and, it seems likely, will perform a similar function in this novel. If the others are hesitantly recovering knowledge, the Alaskan, cybernetically enhanced, and an inveterate gatherer of information, already seems to know the answer to what is going on, and is now merely seeking confirmation. By ensuring that the various protagonists at last find their ways back to Osiris, she is in a position to orchestrate the final confrontation between the various world powers, the city’s rulers and the downtrodden inhabitants of the western quarter. This is a particularly shocking moment of uncertainty in a novel which has perhaps set us up to hope that there might finally be a happy ending. Which is not to say that there isn’t, but it is not necessarily what one might expect.

If the plot seems messy, this is not because of a lack of control in Swift’s writing. Instead, we are witnessing the messiness of real life turned into fiction. The problem, if there is one, is people, who decline to perform as narrative genre expectation demands they should. Instead human concerns drive the storytelling. This has been emphasised throughout the series, as p people react against being treated as mere gaming pieces. If Adelaide could not see actual human beings until it was almost too late, Ramona, by contrast, has been acutely aware of every individual she has met in her travels, and of the personal consequences of decisions taken elsewhere. Vikram, self-contained as he is, has survived by caring about people en masse , but in the end, he also realises that it must be about the individual.

Striking too is the way in which the reader can never see the entire story at once. At the beginning of Osiris Adelaide assumed her brother Axel had been murdered or kidnapped, abandoning her search for an explanation only when something more compelling came along. And here too we are left with fragments of story, things that are not neatly tied off. This might be indicative of the narrative overflowing the trilogy, but Swift seems to be suggesting instead that some stories must inevitably be overwhelmed by others. This is how we survive, in spite of everything.

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.