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Keeping It Real
By Justina Robson
Pyr / ISBN: 978-1-59102-539-9
By Justina Robson
Pyr / ISBN: 978-1-59102-597-9
By Justina Robson
Pyr / ISBN: 978-1-59102-650-1
So once again, it's time for me to pen a single essay concerning an entire series of genre books; because once again I'm tackling a combination of back-titles and a new title from our good friends at genre publisher Pyr, who earlier this year sent me an entire giant box full of cool-looking books merely because I asked them to. And in this case it's the latest three books by our old friend Justina Robson, whose classic artificial-intelligence primer Silver Screen really blew me away when I read it earlier this year (yep, it was yet another book in this big box from Pyr), and made me realize why she's considered by many to be one of the real shining lights of the so-called "British New Wave" of science-fiction authors in the early 2000s. But this time, though, she delivers something completely different: not a serious mindbending drama about "hard science" conceits, but rather a racy, darkly humorous grand fantasy saga, with not exactly a lot of actual sex thrown in but certainly a lot of sexiness. The name of the entire storyline is the "Quantum Gravity" series (consisting so far of 2006's Keeping It Real, 2007's Selling Out and 2008's Going Under*, with more maybe to come); and I have to admit that they quite literally charmed the socks right off me, despite me having barely any tolerance whatsoever for the fantasy genre in general.
Ah, but this isn't any ol' fantasy series, see; it's written in the style of a newish subgenre called "urban fantasy," a type of story that barely existed at all before the mid-1980s or so, but has suddenly exploded in recent years in a way rarely seen in the world of the speculative arts. And to understand what urban fantasy is, one needs simply to recall its two most popular examples, the Harry Potter series and Buffy the Vampire Slayer; they are stories where for one reason or another, tropes from the world of traditional fantasy (wizards, magic, trolls, ogres, etc etc etc) somehow exist within a contemporary, science-based society. And it's this and this alone that makes urban fantasy even tolerable to me at all; because to tell the truth, the thing about traditional Tolkien-style fantasy that drives me the craziest is all the flowery Medieval crap that comes along with it, all the endless stilted dialogue and pre-tech warfare and traipsing around the woods by candlelight and the rest. (And in an attempt to pre-emptively stop a rash of angry letters from coming in, let me make it perfectly clear that I don't think there's anything wrong with liking traditional fantasy, simply that it's not my particular cup of tea, just as there are lots of people who can't stand the silly neo-Victorian finery of the "steampunk" genre that I so adore.)
But this being Robson, of course, she's come up with her own jarringly unique twist on things, which in good "world-building" style starts with a seemingly simple conceit behind it all, which then gets more and more complex the further you examine it: namely, that throughout the entire course of human history, there have actually been half a dozen inhabited planets scattered across the universe, each of the others filled with the kinds of creatures we've only known before in fairytales (a world full of elves, a world full of demons, a world full of fairies, etc), and that a recent mysterious cataclysmic event (known as the "quantum bomb") ripped open an interdimensional gateway between the worlds for the first time. And right away, in fact, Robson does with this concept one of the most brilliant things I've ever seen a genre author do, which is to answer all the immediate questions one would have concerning such a quantum bomb with a simple, "Nobody knows;" that in fact one of the many side-effects of this bomb was to collectively wipe humanity's memories of life before the bomb (much less what caused the bomb itself), to such a profound extent that Earth isn't even called 'Earth' anymore but rather 'Otopia,' to signify The World That Is from The World That Was.
What these books mostly concern themselves with, then, are the ways these various races deal with each other, now that they can all travel freely between the worlds, as well as humanity's efforts to learn as much about these other planets as possible; and Robson does this in a way that harkens all the way back to Silver Screen, by presenting us with the delightfully neurotic main protagonist Lila Black, who is half big-hipped indie-rock nerd queen and half mechanized warrior robot, the result of a freak one-time bionics experiment by what is now Otopia's interdimensional spy agency, after a previous assignment that went bad and left her nearly dead. This is actually one of the things Robson is known for, in fact, addressing female body-image issues through the filter of some pretty astounding hard-science concepts; and just like the self-conscious big-hipped female heroine of Silver Screen, so too is Lila's preoccupation with her looks a running theme to the Quantum Gravity series, and so too does Lila spend quite a bit of time pondering how her semi-hideous half-mecha body** comes across to others, and how it does and does not affect her love life among all the various creatures out there in the interdimensional universe.
Because did I not mention that the whole thing is a raunchy sex comedy too? The whole thing is a raunchy sex comedy too; although please be aware that in the best tradition of erotic tales written by women for women, there are precious few actual graphic sex scenes in the series (only one or two per book), with Robson otherwise pulling off the Austenesque feat of filling the books with sexual tension and grown-up humor instead. And again, she does this in these sometimes infinitely clever ways, that rely heavily on the fantastical elements of the universe she's created; take for example her entire concept of 'aether,' which in the world of "Quantum Gravity" is supposed to be a sort of form of naturally existing energy that humans simply never knew about before the bomb, a sorta free form of electricity and an internet-style wireless communications network all at once, or perhaps it's better thought of like "The Force" from the original Star Wars trilogy, a kind of living energy that binds together all living creatures and affects their actions in subtle ways. It's a substance that can be detected and manipulated by the elves, who turn out to be the second most talked-about race in these books after humans -- creatures who look almost exactly like the elves from Lord of the Rings, only much more pissy if you can believe it -- and in fact the elves of Robson's universe actually have two different bodies, a physical one and then an aetheric one that sorta hangs around and inside and outside the corporeal one, and which actually feeds off this mysterious aether and can do things with it that seem to humans like old-skool magic (and by 'old-skool' I mean King Arthur).
So, to cite one of Robson's ribald examples of what can be done with such a conceit, consider this: that if you've ever in the past felt a sorta strange thing in the air whenever you've partaken in an intense flirtation with someone, something that feels almost like a kind of charged electricity between the two of you that moment, according to Robson you're not just making things up -- this really is the aether of the universe affecting the two of you, working in these incomprehensible ways to make that repartee a much more passionate, dangerous thing than it would otherwise be. And this is just one example I'm talking about, with Robson actually throwing in dozens of them throughout this plainly-written, easy-to-follow series -- from the demon etiquette of attending cocktail parties bathed in the blood of your enemies, to the druglike high humans get while having sex on one of the aether-heavy non-Otopian planets, and a whole lot more smart and kinda dirty stuff to boot. And this of course is to say nothing of the hundreds of nonsexual details about this universe that Robson layers in throughout, which in classic Tolkienian style exists not just of a series of exotic mythologies but even numerous mythologies within these mythologies; there is not just one race of elves but two, for example, with a complicated Indian-style caste system that defines both their relationship and their society in general, plus with an extinct third race whose genocide is a closely-guarded elvish secret, which may or may not have something to do with the quantum bomb that humans can no longer remember anything about. Now multiply this by a hundred, and you're starting to get an idea of the myriad of levels Robson builds into this mesmerizing, addictive universe.
It's hard for me to overstate just how great I found this series, and how like Silver Screen I found it an almost perfect example of its particular genre done right; or in other words, if you're the type of person who only reads one fantasy book a year, you could do a lot worse than to make it Keeping It Real (book 1 of this series) for 2009. An endlessly inventive hybrid of technology and magic, tied together with an internal logic as rock-solid as genre fiction gets, this is sure to be a much-loved treat to any speculative fan out there. The entire series gets a big recommendation from me today.
Out of 10: 9.3, or 10 for existing fantasy fans
*All that said, let me confess that I did not read book 3 of the series, Going Under; because no matter how well-written of fantasy books these are, they're still fantasy books, and I found my natural distaste for fantasy simply rearing its ugly head again by the time I was halfway through book 2. This however still does not change my opinion expressed above, that even non-fans of the genre should tackle at least the first book in the series, and that those who like fantasy in general even a little would be wise to gobble up the entire thing.
**And speaking of body-image issues, please be aware that the Lila described in the books looks profoundly different than the admittedly kickass illustrations by Larry Rostant gracing the covers of all these titles, and that this is a big part of where her neurosis comes in; how ironic, in fact, that one of her ongoing anxieties is over not looking like one of those Neil-Gaiman-reading pixie hipster cosplay hotties she's exactly depicted as on the books' covers.