25) ‘Immersion’ by Aliette de Bodard
You hear them negotiating, in the background – it’s tough going, because the Rong man sticks to his guns stubbornly, refusing to give ground to Galen’s onslaught. It’s all very distant, a subject of intellectual study; the immerser reminds you from time to time, interpreting this and that body cue, nudging you this way and that – you must sit straight and silent, and support your husband – and so you smile through a mouth that feels gummed together.
You feel, all the while, the Rong girl’s gaze on you, burning like ice water, like the gaze of a dragon. She won’t move away from you, and her hand rests on you, gripping your arm with a strength you didn’t think she had in her body. Her avatar is but a thin layer, and you can see her beneath it: a round, moon-shaped face with skin the colour of cinnamon – no, not spices, not chocolate, but simply a colour you’ve seen all your life.
‘You have to take it off,’ she says. You don’t move, but you wonder what she’s talking about.
‘Immersion’ is the other of the two stories in this volume that I’ve read before, when it first came out. Reading it again now, it comes across even more powerfully. As an example of a particular kind of science fiction – the social allegory – it is pretty much perfect.
There are strong resonances here with Rochita Loenen-Ruiz’s story ‘Dancing in the Shadow of the Once’. The immersers in de Bodard’s story work similarly to the augmentations in Loenen-Ruiz’s, only in the opposite direction, interpreting and normalising a culture that is foreign to the wearer, rather than acting as a conduit for suppressed memories. Both stories though speak of oppression, of the devastating impact on individuals and on a whole people when one culture imposes itself upon another, no matter how beneficently.
De Bodard evokes her world with skill and although one could not describe this story as action-packed, plenty happens nonetheless. I especially loved Tam. I think she should have a whole book to herself…
26) ‘Down the Wall’ by Greer Gilman
They’ve come into a wide square, set with shattered baulks of stone: a great cat with a muffled head, a riven owl, a witch in flinders. There are fires here and there, some leaping and some embers, ashes. Some long cold. And some a-building: leaves and boxes, doors and drawers and random trash. Children heap frail crazy towers: sticks stacks crows’ nests, all to burn. Some run with brands, they leap and whirl them in a swarm of sparks. They write great fading loops of spells. Three drag a gnarled branch to the fires, its dry and leafy fingers clagged with tins, as many as the rings on a witch’s hand. And still it scrabbles, rakes for more.
This is a night-fantasia, Mervyn Peake on speed, Gustav Dore drawn in words. You could quote from anywhere in this story and it would be uniformly exquisite, universally sublime. ‘Down the Wall’ is a work of poetry, really – its connection with any usual style of prose narrative is tendentious at best. If I were to compare it with music (which I feel driven to, inevitably), which work would it remind me of most? ‘A Night on the Bald Mountain’ by Modest Mussorgsky, of course. Dance, witch, dance.
Greer Gilman is a magician. Her use and love of language is as ferociously advanced as anything in mainstream literary fiction, and then some. What a voice. I was lucky enough to hear her talking on a panel at this year’s Worldcon. The discussion was about favourite sentences. Gilman chose a line from Andrew Marvell. Way to go. I am lost in awe.