I mentioned Never Knew Another in passing on Monday, but it deserves a little more space. Plus, Rosa Montero's post-cyberpunk detective story, Tears in Rain.
J.M. McDermott's Never Knew Another (2011) is a stunning example of one of my favourite new sub-genres - the fantasy/mystery mash-up, set in a secondary world (see also: Tomorrow, the Killing and Drakenfeld.) I can only imagine how tricky these are to write - the two genres each have their own rules and themes, and convincing them co-exist is a rare talent.
In Never Knew Another, our cops are a team of, to express it in D&D terms: druids. In this case, they're called Walkers, and they serve as both exorcists and investigators. They've found the body of a demon in the wilderness. A demon's taint is a filthy and cancerous thing, but, fortunately, they were just in time to purify the ground before the contamination spread any further. The real problem is that the demon had to come from somewhere, so the Walkers need to retrace its steps and clean up its mystical mess.
By using the demon's skull, the Walkers can investigate its memories - and this is where Never Knew Another becomes genius. The narrative splits in half. In the past, we have the fragmented memories of Corporal Jona, scion of a collapsed noble family and secret demon. In the present, we have the Walkers, using those same fragments to track down and cleanse the city of evil.
And, without a doubt, Jona is evil. His blood is poison, his sweat rots through cloth, he is a physical manifestation of all that is awful. His own behaviour is... dubious. Jona feels drawn towards murder and violence, but we're left unclear if that's his nature or his nature. Is he evil because he's a demon? Or is he evil because he feels he has no other choice? Never Knew Another is a complex and insightful discussion of predestination. Everything changes for him when he meets Rachel - another demon. She's also been hiding for her entire life, on the run with her brother and living in fear.
Never Knew Another is also a discussion of loneliness. Jona and Rachel are so outcast that the land itself rejects them: by spitting on a plant, they can poison it. Fundamentally, they've lived their lives in the belief that they would always be alone. As soon as they meet one another and realise this belief is false, everything changes. If they're not alone, perhaps they're not outcasts. And if they're not outcasts, maybe they're not wrong.
The Walkers make for impressively enigmatic narrators, but even as they wade through the wreckage of Jona's life, they can't avoid the inevitable: empathy. Never Knew Another is a strange sort of love story: the Walkers are a married pair, and outcasts in their own right. Their dedication and reliance upon one another provides a mature parallel to Jona and Rachel's fledgling relationship.
Who killed Jona? What happens to Rachel? When push comes to shove, what will the Walkers do? Never Knew Another is a mystery, a fantasy, even a romance. However you categorise it, it is a stunning, incredible book - portraying a complicated world filled with complex, multi-dimensional characters. It forces the reader to understand how well we ever know anyone, even ourselves.
Rosa Montero's Tears in Rain (2012) is, I suppose, Blade Runner fan-fiction (Justin Landon writes more about this here). Ms. Montero, a literary heavyweight, was apparently so taken with the final moments of the film that she spun its themes out into a full, free-standing novel.
Before I press on, let's be controversial: I don't actually like Blade Runner that much. I'm ok with it, but as much as I like the aesthetic ('cause skyscrapers are awesome), I find the actual film kind of... ponderous. I'm more fond of the original Philip K. Dick novel, and, even then, meh. So, it was much to my surprise that I really liked Ms. Montero's book.
Bruna Husky is a "rep", a replicant or artificial human. Like other replicants, she has ten years to live, and the first few of those are spent in indentured servitude (repayment for being manufactured in the first place). Every day she wakes up (generally hung-over), Bruna counts down until her death. She knows exactly when and how it will happen. Like other replicants, Bruna comes with the pre-arranged battery of fake memories - an artificial childhood, complete with "revelation" moment, an artificial memory of her learning that she's a replicant. Her past is untrustworthy. Her present is miserable. Her future is limited.
Tears opens with Bruna being attacked by one of her neighbours, a fellow replicant. The attack comes with neither warning nor reason, and, after narrowly escaping a messy death, Bruna learns that this isn't an isolated case. Replicants are going insane and committing horrendous crimes. Tensions are running high between replicants and "real" humans, with political groups stepping up their rhetoric. Bruna's friends learn that the plot runs deep - with intellectual terrorists mucking about in the central archives, literally trying to rewrite Earth's history.
Like Never Knew Another, Tears in Rain explores the role of outcasts in society: Bruna is a member of a hugely marginalised group, a group that is physically different to the majority. But where Never Knew Another investigates predetermination and loneliness, Tears aims even higher by constantly posing the question "what is real?". Bruna's memories are false. Her existence is, for lack of a better word, ephemeral. She is the only one that can remember her lover. Political groups are busily rewriting her people's past.
Nor does she help herself - by drinking heavily, Bruna manages to blot out her own perceptions - she blacks out frequently. Yet Cartesian theory proves inescapable and eventually she returns to thinking, and therefore existence. And it is harrowing fact that the first moments of her every morning's existence are spent counting down to her death.
Bruna is not the only one struggling with existential angst. Nor are replicants – a manufactured source of cheap labour - the only example of her society's ability to create an invisible working class. In a viciously capitalist world where you're forced to pay to breathe, some people have are stuck in the most miserable jobs possible: serving as walking advertisements, dressed in noisy sandwich boards. At best they are tolerated with only mild harassment. But at least that's some form of recognition. At worst, they're completely ignored: a human being reduced to background noise. That might be living, but is it existing?
(Meanwhile, two orbiting states have each created their own invisible classes: a floating cult has branded serfs whilst a quasi-Orwellian Soviet state has its own variety of dispirited proletariats. Ms. Montaro is nothing if not even-handed.)
Tears in Rain takes the initial ideas of Dick (and Scott) and spirals out in new and unexpected directions. If anything, Tears becomes a little too excited about its universe: there's a lot of information dumping. Ostensibly constructed as a mystery, Tears is more of an... amble. Bruna methodically encounters every single player in (and around) her world, only to sprint through the final (slightly dissatisfying) reveal. A tighter narrative would've made for a better mystery - but then, my fondness has always been for detective stories that aren't on such an epic scale. Solving a murder is impressive enough, a detective doesn't need to save the world in the bargain. But, in this case, the mystery is a means to explore the world, and not the other way around.
Tears in Rain may be a fair-to-middling piece of detective fiction, but it is an excellent piece of literary SF. Ms. Montero takes a single scientific concept (the replicant) and explores what it means - what it really means - in depth. If the jubilant world-building gets in the way of the story at times, well, that's nothing new for the genre.