Some time in the year 2000, out of money and the PhD in Shandeana moving further out of reach, I must have decided to try book-reviewing again. Not for money, obviously, but to attempt something creative that wasn’t tied up in the PhD disaster. So I wrote the following piece about the first two volumes of Paul McAuley’s Confluence trilogy. It’s still online at Infinity Plus but I don’t think Keith will mind me reproducing it here in this new blog.
Keith sent me the third volume, Shrine of Stars, to review shortly thereafter, so obviously he thought the quality of my work was okay. I believe he sent a couple of other titles too. I spectacularly failed to review anything else for Infinity Plus.
and it’s still fantastic.The entire trilogy was recently reissued in the UK, in an ebook and print omnibus. I reread the first book again at the end of 2013
Child of the River and Ancient of Days
A word of caution for future readers of The Book of Confluence: it appears to be an easy read, but there will come a point, as with most of McAuley’s work, where you can go no further without pausing to adjust your reading expectations. When reading both of these novels I found that I had been reading them too quickly, concentrating on the picaresque adventure story which occupies the surface of the text, and had not been paying enough attention to what lay beneath.
Perversely, this is just the kind of reading experience which I personally enjoy. It is those novels which I initially find difficult or unsatisfying, because I have missed too many of the text’s mysteries, which reward more intensive subsequent rereading. Inevitably, with this kind of catastrophic reading practice I found myself misreading the first two volumes of The Book of Confluence by treating them as diversionary reading, rather than the main event. That is not to say that this is difficult reading, nor do I intend to warn you away from this sequence, I merely wish to say that this is a text which requires a little extra work, and rewards the reader appropriately.
Part of the difficulty in reading these two volumes of the Confluence trilogy is that the fierce intelligence they manifest is coupled with a very strong narrative thrust, especially in the second volume, so that the reader may be fooled into following the adventure yarn at the expense of noticing all that is going on alongside it. As Nick Gevers points out in his infinity plus interview with McAuley, the trilogy is reminiscent at certain points of the work of Gene Wolfe, the master of this kind of subtle play with genre expectations.
Confluence and Urth
So to my preconceptions about The Book of Confluence: here McAuley does Gene Wolfe.
While reading of the first book, Child of the River, there is great fun to be had by spotting the symbols and mysteries associated with Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun: occasionally, the text produces the same archaic or obscure words which Wolfe uses in similar circumstances (‘arbalest’, ‘hierodule’). There is a giant necropolis, and an epic generation-spanning war rumbling in the background. The protagonist, Yama, is a messiah-figure, although unlike Wolfe’s Severian and Silk, he is blessed and cursed by strange powers. There is also another kind of reading dissonance, found where technological artefacts are described in the vocabulary of fantasy.
However, the strongest feeling I had upon completing Child of the River was not so much the Wolfe comparison, but that here McAuley does fantasy, and this came as some disappointment. He states in his interview that this was his intention, and that the three instalments move from fantasy, through science fantasy, into science fiction, but the first volume seems almost too much of a slave to the now-standard tropes of heroic fantasy: the foundling hero, adopted and with no knowledge of his family or history is marked out to be some kind of saviour by special abilities. He will progress from petulant adolescent in the first volume, through confused but powerful young adult in the second, to saviour and master in the final instalment. Furthermore, he will gather a fellowship around him who, while significantly weaker in terms of their powers, will each specialise in a different skill, such as fighting, thievery, and learning.
Even without reading the interview one is quickly aware that these cliched elements are subject to question and to transformation as the narrative progresses. Each of these devices, now standard in many fantasy trilogies, is present in one form or another, and by the end of the first volume Confluence has only begun to work its way around them.
Confluence is an artificial world built at the edge of a galaxy near a black hole. It echoes both Discworld in its unnatural shape and Philip José Farmer’s Riverworld in its design. Constructed by the unfathomable super-evolved descendants of humanity, known as the Preservers, Confluence has long since been abandoned to humanity’s servants, who it becomes clear are super-evolved Terran animals.
The Preservers themselves have since moved out of the galaxy into some unimaginable transcendence, and these lesser races are forced into a struggle to evolve until they reach a point of transcendence and can join the Preservers beyond. There are also races without this capability to evolve, known as the indigenes.
This melange of epic SF mysticism in the fashion of Olaf Stapledon, and theological fantasy initially sits uneasily, especially as information on the background is only apportioned to the reader in small doses as the story develops. Thus, while the background can be described in the terms used above, the reader does not reach that point of understanding until the narrative is long under way. The SF touches such as these lie underneath the markers of fantasy in the surface level. So, the immediate narrative is that of Yama, a foundling of no known race on Confluence, who is raised by the ruler of a provincial town along the Great River. He has a simple existence and a girl he loves. He aspires only to follow his adopted brother to the glory and folly of the age-old war taking place between mysterious ‘heretics’ and the forces of order. However circumstances do not fall out that way, and Yama instead finds himself embroiled in the mysteries of Confluence, not least of which, in a society which values heritage above all things, is the mysterious unknown quantity of his bloodline.
Furthermore, Yama has strange unknown powers, which initially manifest themselves as protection against physical threats. Child of the River takes Yama from his adoptive home in Aeolis along the Great River to the centre of its civilisation in Ys. Ys is characterised by devious factions of warring bureaucrats who wish to study him. Beginning to establish his fellowship, Yama escapes them and hooks up with a local who becomes his page-boy, and a mercenary, with whom he works and trains. The first instalment concludes with their first mercenary job and a movement towards revelation, as Yama begins to find answers to the questions of his origin. It has become clear to the reader by this point that Yama’s birthright is human, and that he is a descendent of the heretics known as the “Ancients of Days” who began the war.
One of the most intriguing characters in Confluence is ‘Angel’ who serves both as Yama’s teacher and as his diabolic temptress. Initially Angel’s presence in the text is limited by her appearance as a mysterious power speaking to Yama through the network of shrines which allowed the Preservers and their servants to communicate with the inhabitants of Confluence, suggesting that she is somehow connected to them, and may be able to provide some kind of bridge between the people of Confluence and their creators. However, she begins to manipulate Yama in ways which are so far unclear, and her importance to the trilogy may be greater than at first appears.
It is through Angel’s tale of her own origin in the second volume that we learn a version of the creation of Confluence which is less obscured by the mythology of the inhabitant races, for Angel is the avatar of a pre-Preserver human, who has uncovered the difficult truth that the rest of the universe is uninhabited. In actuality she exists only historically – her presence is no more than a preserved artificial intelligence, and her re-appearance in the second volume confirms her historical importance to Confluence as it is revealed that she is the originator of the great rebellion. The character is also featured in the short stories ‘Recording Angel‘ (first published in New Legends, edited by Greg Bear and Martin H Greenberg, Tor, 1995; republished at infinity plus) and ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’ (Interzone 119, May 1997).
Angel’s tale is just one example of how the second volume provides a corrective to the first. Where the first has given us the received religious account of the creation of Confluence, Angel’s story recasts that narrative in terms which we can understand, the language of science fiction. Yama’s strange powers originate in his ability to control the nano-machines which are the true inhabitants of this strange world.
Many of the inhabitant races have such nano-machines permanently implanted in them, and the moment of transcendence which had religious significance in the first volume, is revealed to have a secular origin in the second, as transcendence is the recording in these machines of the spirit of a race which is then moved onto the next plane. We quickly find that the nano-machines left behind by the Preservers are the source of much that appears magical and fantastic in Confluence. Yama’s mark of messiah-hood is that he has the ability to control all the machines, and to bend them to his will.
Ancients of Days
The story in Ancients of Days continues Yama’s mercenary life as he defends one department of the bureaucracy from the encroachments of another. Yama becomes side-tracked and his powers lead him into trouble. The simple mercenary job turns into a trap which allows the reader to identify the bureaucrats, and Prefect Corin (Yama’s escort from Aeolis) as ‘the enemy’ who will dominate the remainder of the narrative, despite Angel.
With a brief detour into the nature of Confluence’s archives and libraries, Yama continues his quest for his origins. Angel begins to awaken Yama’s powers, and, under her influence he accidentally transforms one of the indigenous races (the “Mirror People”) into a race that can “upload” itself at Confluence’s end. What has previously been understood only as Yama’s magic is shown to be the actual workings of nano-technology. Yama’s status as saviour of this race is shown to have real scientific origins, but is still miraculous.
There are strong Biblical resonances at this point, especially in the carnival procession of peoples which leads Yama out of the city. However, just as Angel’s words serve to draw us away from the language of mythology, Yama’s later aspect as angry and demonic destroyer prevents the reader from continuing to read the novels as the picaresque journey of a messiah in training. The folly inherent in following in the footsteps of mythic heroes is revealed, as Yama realises after he has performed his miracle:
“Zakiel had told him that, because of the great age of Confluence and the multiplicity of its bloodlines, there were so many stories and tales that anyone could find in them a mirror to their own life. And so the mirror people had seen in Yama a reflection of some long-dead hero or half-forgotten promise.”
The Transformation of Myth
Ancients of Days concentrates on this idea of transformation, particularly in a metafictional way that allows the reader to realise that some of the characters are playing their parts in stories. As one of Yama’s fellowship, Eliphas the archivist, comments, “Books are more powerful than the world.” Both the warrior hero and the religious saviour are narrative stereotypes which Yama may inhabit for a while, but the reality of his own circumstances prevents his own story from becoming the story of either. One of the devices that achieves this is the conversion of the fantasy elements in its predecessor into terms which are more readily comprehensible as science fiction. This is really just a redeployment of the same idea using a different set of terms: the language of science is, after all, to the non-specialist reader like myself, no more comprehensible than the language of fantasy.
The distinction lies in the value and authority we place in such discourses, and because we place more authority in a discourse of nano-machines than we do in demi-gods and demons, the effect works. The demon which chases Yama through the first third of Ancients is also a ‘feral machine’; the religious transcendence which the ‘changed’ races aspire to is actually the recording of their memories in the nano-machines which infect them, ready for the their cosmic transfiguration at an unspecified moment in the future. Yet both levels work in The Book of Confluence, so Angel is at once a very real and dangerous power, and a mythic archetype of the devil.
A dominant device then is in the transformation of the spiritual into the secular, from the language of the fantastic into the language of logic and science. McAuley lays bare the construction of his universe from narratives of myth and history. If Yama is to be a messiah, it is so that he can remind us that mythology, Biblical or otherwise, is always narrative told as a way of comprehending events around us. The transforming imperative in Ancients of Days at least is to transform the spiritual into the narrative of science, while still retaining an element of the spiritual. Yama’s miracle with the Mirror People is shown to be no less a miracle, just because Yama has doubts and has powers have a non-mystical explanation.
The second volume ends with the breaking of the fellowship Yama has gathered about him, symbolically breaking the final tie with the fantastic elements of Child of the River. On the evidence of these two volumes, the third will move towards a kind of spiritual humanism, transforming dangerous adherence to myth and dogma into awareness of the transforming power of narrative and the importance of the narrative of science.