Ian McDonald: Kirinya

Cover of the new Kirinya ebookThis review was written in 1998 for Foundation: the International Review of Science Fiction, the academic journal of the Science Fiction Foundation. It was first published  in #74, Autumn 1998. Along with the review of two novels by Lois McMaster Bujold it was my first foray into book reviewing. I’d hoped then to write more, but my PhD studies in Shandeism had to take precedence.

It seems to have been a time for sequels for Ian McDonald – Asimov’s recently published a difficult sequel to his earlier novel Necroville (US Title, Terminal Café) entitled “The Days of Solomon Gursky”, and now we have the full size sequel to Chaga, with recent reports suggesting that a further sequel is on the way. So this is McDonald’s first trilogy. It is unfortunate then that the middle volume suffers from middle-volume syndrome.

Chaga was an astonishing book: it took the traditional hard sf ‘big dumb object’ plot from Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama and played with it: the Earth is being invaded by a strange life form which lands around the equator, particularly in Africa. The life-form becomes known as ‘Chaga’ and it nano-forms everything in its path as it expands across Africa. It also nano-forms Saturn’s moon Hyperion into the big dumb object on a course for Earth throughout the novel.  McDonald takes the hard SF trappings of this so-far typical narrative very seriously – the nanoforming Chaga is a type of buckminster-fullerene – the transformed section of Africa is described as a ‘buckyball jungle’. The Chaga  begins the novel as other, as alien, but it is soon apparent that the other is (inevitably) ourselves.  People live in the Chaga as it adapts itself and them to suit each other. In the manner of Blish’s Seedling Stars one group of humans are adapted for free-fall: fitted with an extra set of arms where legs once were.  In its recognition of the necessary relationship of the humans with the ‘other’ it became clear on first reading that McDonald was playing games: spaceships are named after sf writers, the big dumb object which follows the Chaga is actually named the ‘Big Dumb Object’ after the term found in the Clute & Nicholls Encyclopedia.

Chaga was ultimately a very post-colonial work of SF: the totalising forces of the West were placed in opposition with the symbiosis forming between Africa and its new coloniser. It concluded with said BDO arriving in Earth object and presenting a series of chambers for human exploration. It was a this point that the master narrative of BDO first contact reasserted itself. The macho macho scientist as hero, who incidentally has no first name – as pointed out at several points in the text  – enters the object as the book concludes. No explanations were given: either McDonald was acknowledging that this sf narrative can only end in disappointment  – the great first contact myth is always an anticlimax – and thus he was leaving us without an answer, or there was a sequel due.

As for the sequel: the problem here is that McDonald really does not want to follow the traditional path of the narrative he is adopting. Yet having let the BDO narrative reassert its importance, the demand for explanation and resolution is present in every reading. The rest of Chaga was so exciting and so well-written that our expectations were high for something original. Thus around a quarter of the way through the novel we are given a diary account of Shepard’s adventures in the BDO and the accompanying descent into political cold war that frames much of Kirinya.  Then in the climax of the novel we find out a bit more, but most is left until the third volume, which will presumably be the conclusion. Instead of ‘the alien’, we encounter another race who were transformed by contact with ‘Chaga’. Couple this with the hints in the first volume that “the Chaga knows us”, and it is possible to suspect that the Chaga is some kind of cosmic evolutionary force whose ultimate motives may never become clear.

What we have then in Kirinya are  the further adventures of the heroine of Chaga, Gaby McAslan, feisty journalist and her supporting cast. Yet Gaby is a shadow of her former self, and the role of adventurer is taken by her daughter Ren, who is inevitably a lesser character because Gaby was so memorable. Other members of the supporting cast take centre stage as McDonald tries to show us what life is like living inside the Chaga. These scenes are fantastic: a return to the magical realism of Desolation Road, crossed with, perhaps, Ben Okri’s tales of African magic. They serve to show how much Africa has accepted the new other, the new coloniser, because it has liberated them from the dominance of the West. Yet Chaga life is disrupted by factions and politics, and the inevitable conflict with America is the narrative focus of the last quarter of the novel.

Where Chaga was a tightly focused exploration of the alien which teased the reader into continuing reading by presenting old stories done in interesting ways, Kirinya suffers because McDonald refuses to fulfil the promise of the first contact narrative. This is, in itself, admirable:  Clarke ruined the inherent mystery of Rama in the sequels. Yet the conclusion of Chaga demanded that McDonald continue twisting the expected conventions in an exploration of the BDO and the motives of its creators. The replacement narrative scheme which shows the effect of the Chaga-forming is too diffuse, too mixed up in Earth politics to reproduce the continuous sense of wonder which the first novel produced.

The finale involves Ren’s journey through the next few chambers of the BDO. This reader would prefer that it had been Gaby, but that would have been stretched the credibility of the character. The final chamber is not reached, but it is alleged to contain a singularity. Western non-Chaga thought suggests this is a wormhole gate to the stars. Chaga minds suspect other wonders await. There is still promise for the next volume. There is enough pleasure in meeting the characters and situation again to make me eat my words if the finale is good.

Jonathan

43 year old wastrel and writer…