There’s a bubble universe next door to Blackpool. One of an unspecified number of ‘sidebars’ which exist some 500 years hence, a quarter century after the events of Justina Robson’s previous novel, Natural History. 15 year old Francine is a runaway to Sankhara, where she falls in with a benign but dull religious cult and is befriended by Damien, a gay elf and ‘Stuffie’ agent of the Engine which governs the structure of Sankhara and periodically remakes it in ‘Engine Time’. So far, so Dark City. But recently, in a run down district on the edge of town, a bubble has appeared within the bubble, housing a vast park, a surreal replica of Catherine the Great’s Winter Palace, surrounded by an ever changing wild wood which owes more than a little to Robert Holdstock’s ‘Mythago’ novels. All this is the brilliantly realised setting for the story of Francine’s love for Jalaeka, friendship with Greg and conflict with Theo.
The novel begins with a superbly constructed set-piece with all the best hallmarks of a blockbuster movie pre-credits sequence. Jalaeka is on the rooftops of the Metropolis sidebar, watching the roleplaying superheroes and having an assignation with Angel #5, when the agents of Unity track him through the 7D. He escapes the destruction of the sidebar only by an 11D translation into Sankhara. There the oldest story starts to play itself out as boy meets girl, except that Jalaeka is an incarnation of Eros, the god of love, and Francine may have been a Geisha in a faux Roman Empire on a world far away and long ago. Greg is the academic researching the increasingly bizarre situation, and Theo is the principle 4D incarnation of the 7D entity known as Unity.
Living Next-Door To The God Of Love is a hard book to write about without giving away its manifold secrets, and to do so would be to do the novel a disservice, for the greatest pleasure it holds is in the gradual uncovering of the extraordinarily detailed and original fictional universe Justina Robson has created. A world which encompasses the legacy of the Brontes’ and the spirit of Apocalypse Now alongside ‘Forged’ biotek humans and assorted AIs and virtual realities, but which is focused essentially on the nature of love, and on the search for identity and meaning in an increasingly confusing world. It is a book in which the extraordinary, an elf, sits with complete comfort with the mundane; the elf eats a packet of crisps. The minutiae of life coalesce with the apocalyptic.
Key to the narrative is the conflict between Jalaeka and Theo, the former representing individuality, yet paradoxically defined by those whom he loves and who love him, the latter equally paradoxical, an individuation of a homogenous group mind of billions. One can read into the book’s symbols many things, but this central battle might be taken as a choice between Western and Eastern religious philosophies, the individual personal God of the Judaic/Christian/Islamic lineage, against the ego transcendence of Buddhism.
But it’s not that simple, for how much is real and how much is the result of Francine’s own psychological drives is another story. Or perhaps is the story. There are times when reading Living Next-Door To The God of Love when it feels like a Christopher Priest novel, perhaps The Glamour, which has spent the evening taking far too many drugs then gone to the strangest club in the universe.
Justina Robson crafts marvellous prose. Much of the book is wonderfully well written. It is filled with striking sentences, shot through with penetrating character insights, and littered with gloriously imaginative ideas which are regularly cast aside in a few words as incidental background, out of which lesser writers would build an entire story. That the novel sometimes becomes easier to admire than to enjoy is due to a lack of strong narrative drive. This is especially the case in the first half, where after the bravura opening, the tale becomes mired in lengthy sequences in which little, in an external sense, happens, but the world is laid out in elliptical asides from which the reader has to construct everything from an often elusive context. It can be hard and frustrating work. Things pick up considerably later on and the writing exerts real grip. The large scale finale certainly holds the attention, though seems less original than what has led up to it, as if Robson struggled to resolve the vastly strange tale without resorting to regulation special effects. Given the feeling that anything can happen in Sankhara it ultimately becomes a little hard to care what does. Still, the reader is kept guessing till the final line, the coda being inevitably layered with fascinating resonances of its own.
Living Next-Door To The God Of Love is SF which, for all that it successfully creates a future in which science is essentially indistinguishable from magic, feels like fantasy. Original and challenging, it is a work some will love, others hate, and which personally left me feeling that, brilliant as it is, the whole is not quite the sum of its parts. Perhaps a second reading is necessary to appreciate the full achievement.
This is a difficult book to get to grips with, and though it works as a self-contained novel set within the same future as Natural History, reading the previous volume first would certainly make this novel more accessible. Finally, I would be remiss if I did not note, for those who might want to avoid such material, that the novel does contain two sequences of unflinchingly described rape and sexual degradation.