Justina Robson. Keeping It Real (Pyr 2007) Book One of Quantum Gravity.
Justina Robson. Selling Out (Pyr 2007) Book Two of Quantum Gravity.Justina Robson. Going Under (Pyr 2008) Book Three of Quantum Gravity. Justina Robson. Chasing the Dragon (Pyr 2009) Book Four of Quantum Gravity.
Justina Robson is one of the bright new British SF&F writers making her mark in the new millennium. After two stand alone novels, she has created the (so far) four volume Quantum Gravity series, set in a world where, after ‘the explosion at the Superconducting Supercollider in Texas, at some point in the Lost Year, 2015, scientists discovered a hole in the fabric of spacetime over the blast site.’ The blast brought at least five other realities into contact with Earth (now called Otopia): ‘Zoomenon, the realm of the Elements’; ‘Alfheim,’ the elves’ world; ‘Demonia,’ self-explanatory (‘The demons are, like the elves, life-forms which appear adept in magic’); ‘Faery,’ very ancient, & with a ‘long association with certain regions of the Earth over the more interesting parts of human history’; & ‘Thanatopia’ an ‘unlikely place … bound tightly to the I-space continuum’ (to ‘cross into Thanatopia requires death and return is not possible to those not greatly skilled in necromancy’). It’s a great set-up for this character-driven thriller. In what follows, it might seem that I give too much plot & story away, but, believe me, I barely scratch the surface.
Of course most of the realms have spy agencies, which sometimes collaborate with each other, & in Keeping It Real Lila Black, tortured to near death in a diplomatic mission gone wrong in Alfheim, has been re-made into a cyborg, what’s left of her human body meshed with carbon & metal alloy machinery & an AI. At least, that’s what she knows about her new status. For her first mission, the deeply insecure agent, with a lot of self-identity & self-worth issues, is assigned to guard a renegade Elf rock star, Zal Ahriman, who has spent time in Demonia, & is much more than he seems.
That’s the set-up for a wild ride for them both, & for the others who will become Lila’s companions. First, Lila & Zal get into a ‘Game,’ something that happens a lot between Elves & between Elves & humans, & which Lila had been warned against. This will play out across all 4 books. Despite her best efforts, some Elf agents manage to kidnap Zal back into Alfheim, where an Elf Queen seeks to create a spell that will once again seal her world off from all the others, in order, she thinks to preserve its purity. Zal, & eventually Lila, as well as some other elves, working underground, believe she’s wrong, but she, & they, will have to go through much fighting, suffering, & some terrible killings, before they can stop her, & get Zal back to our world (that’s Otopia, with its fractured memory of all the history Robson’s readers bring to their reading of this series – which is some of the fun of her text). Lila first joins the elf who originally tortured her (but did so to save her life, as he’s a member of that underground revolutionary group against the Elf Queen); before she’s through she has assimilated the living soul, called andalune, of an elf-necromancer she killed, & been forced to kill the elf who helped her get there. And these experiences, as well as just the power of Alfheim’s environment, have changed her physically, pushing her metal body into a greater connection nto her human one.
Robson is especially good on Lila’s many psychological flaws & difficulties, including her broken self-image. The concept of mixing high tech (cyberpunk) with Faery & other lands & their magic is not completely new, but Robson complicates it wonderfully with her many realms. She develops the other characters, of various races with subtlety & a fine sense of their alien sensibilities. The narrative moves quickly but achieves depth in the representation of wildly different characters, politics, & places. Keeping It Real is great fun, but it’s something more & better than just escapist entertainment; as well, it sets up expectations for further books in the series: there’s lots more to explore in the other realms, & in Lila’s relations with others & with her maturing self.
Selling Out travels further into the different realms opened up by the Quantum Bomb of 2015 when the Agency sends the already altered Lila into Demonia, basically to do some spying there. Of course, she gets into trouble, blundering into feuds (a Demonian sport) & politics, as well as continuing to run from her own feelings, fears, & identity confusions. When she kills a demon assassin, who’s the beloved younger son of an important family, she becomes famous & a target of the mother’s revenge & the son’s (Teazle, the best assassin in Demonia) lust. As well, she continues to learn how to live with Tath, her ingested elf, & now an imp (they’re demeaned demons whose only purpose seems to be to make those they haunt feel even smaller, meaner, & more undeserving; this one does so by telling her harsh truths, as he seems to be a bit out of the mould.
Robson not only opens up the exploration of realms but also expands her investigation of character by providing separate narrative arcs for Zal (who trying to go to Lila’s aid in Demonia gets sideswiped into Zoomenon, where he should die but instead survives until he is swept into I-space , the chaotic in-between that separates the realms) & for Malachi, the faery seconded to the Agency (who tries to help Lila, but possibly for his own purposes, & also follows a human-turned-into-something else into ‘Akashic space. It was a fey term: Akasha. I-space. The Interstitial. The Void. The Aether.’). As he later tells Lila, ‘”seems like you get in trouble everywhere you go.”’ This is definitely an understatement concerning the narrative engine of this series. These other characters are becoming more important on their own, but Lila is still the central figure in this narrative dance.
Robson is definitely having fun with the violence & artistic energy of Demonia, the deepening understanding of the various realms, & the growing backstories of those realms & the major figures from them, but she also uses her mastery of SF & fantasy conventions to construct a probing, & often darkly comic, character study of a variety of people, managing to make the alien races definitely alien if also human-like. The sequence is becoming both grander & ever more complexly entertaining.
Book Three, Going Under, just gets more & more complicated, as Lila Black continues to change, or at least her material body does, under the influences of different realms, the elf inside her, the imp riding her shoulder, the connection with her two (Demonian) husbands, Zal & Teazle. At the beginning, she is living with them in Demonia, part of a joining of two of the most powerful families in that state. But she still feels overwhelmed, guilty, full of self-doubt, & really unsure about her slowly changing metal (or elemental) & human body as it seems to be uniting its separate parts both faster & more completely than any human scientist could have predicted when they built her (but that’s another story she slowly uncovers in Books Three & Four).
Robson has constructed a marvelously malleable multiverse, in which science fiction tropes engage a wide variety of fantasy & mythic ones; this allows her to just keep raising the narrative stakes, adding more & more story possibilities, ever more power to her still naïve & unknowledgeable protagonist. Indeed, there are just too many shifts & plot diversions to track in a review. However, even as Lila’s powers grow, many things go badly for her & her allies. Some of the favorite characters die, especially Zal’s demon sister, Sorcha. Her death destroys something in him & hurts them all.
Meanwhile, back on Otopia (about whose changes from pre-Bomb Earth we learn more), Malachi the faery finds that the ‘diversion’ he set in motion, the swarm of ‘moths,’ has gotten out of hand. Eventually he must lead Lila & her husbands into Faery to try to find someone or something to help stop the scourge in Otopia. This leads them into the deeper parts of Faery, where a fisher-king like figure tyrannizes all the faeries in that area. Long ago, faeries ‘lost’ half, the oldest & deepest part, of their realm, putting it Under. Jack the Giant Killer is himself trapped in a repeating story, but Lila’s odd little band will, it seems, break that spell. So far back in time, they all take on more basic forms, & Tath finds a body, since this place is far before he died. Between them, her band will find the question, run the hunt, & participate in the other parts of the tale that will eventually open up the ancient lost part of Faery. But at great cost. By the end, Zal (who by the way has given Lila a new & special dress) may have been killed in a Wild Hunt, & taken to perhaps be saved by one of the Fates; Tath has become the new king & released the faeries under Jack’s rule but will stay; the rest have fallen into the Under where the imp must stay in an exchange but Lila gets to take a donation from what seems to be a faery museum, a little knife that is much more than it seems. She also bargains with a Power, that it can spend a year & a day in Otopia if it rids it of the moths.
At the end, Lila & Teazle return to Otopia, & find that they have suffered the traditional fate of those who go to Faery: it’s fifty years later, her sister is dead, all she knew at the Agency except Malachi are gone, the Agency has constructed many more like her, some of whom attack her & Teazle, but her body has undergone many more aetheric alterations, & she can even ‘speak’ with her AI, somewhat like she did with Tath, & she defeats them. She’s mourning Zal, lost in a world utterly changed by various otherworldly influences. And there are still more changes, to come. One could say, too much happens, but Robson keeps all her narrative balls in the air while charming her audience with her delight in doing so apparently effortlessly.
Chasing the Dragon kicks out the jams &, perhaps, brings the series to a close; but before doing so, it takes Lila & her allies through even more realms & into ever greater contention with ancient & powerful entities. Possibly the mantra for these worlds is ‘dragons all the way down’; at any rate, apparently dragons are the ur-powers of all realms, the base from which all other gods, fates, powers, races emerge. They are so ancient, & generally quiescent, & definitely not to be awakened, that the possibility that even one might arise spells the possible end of all worlds. But that’s a story buried rather deep below the ongoing narratives of Lila, al, Malachi, Teazle, Ilyatath (the new Lord of Winter), & even the Agency, as it attempts to deal with the magic incursions brought about by Lila’s activities.
Lila, with her dress (possibly the soul of Tatterdemalion, a faery goddess long lost in their deep past) & her pen/sword (also a power), both of which may be using her as much as helping her, & her new body, now completely malleable between metal & new flesh, is back in Otopia, hiding out with Teazle, her demon lover now, but she, & he, & even Zal, Malachi, & Ilyatath will venture into other realms &, especially, the Void. Much happens; too much to even attempt to summarize. Among other things, Teazle is trapped in one of the 3 great mirrors, The Mirror of Dreams, while Zal, a rag doll ‘living’ with the 3 Fates, is eventually seconded by ‘Glinda,’ the one who is his death, to go after a necromancer now commanding the Ghost Fleet, &, after they pass through Thanatopia he becomes a shadow & begins to remember a bit of his life (most of his memories were lost when Jack almost destroyed him). Eventually they all meet on the Admiral’s Ghost Ship, & in a final confrontation, uncover a number of secrets. This could be a conclusion to the series: Zal will get his body back; Lila & Teazle will meet up with him in Faery; all is more or less well. And I’ve only barely touched on all the narrative moves in this one novel let alone the whole series.
But it’s not the end: Down to the Bone has just come out. One could argue that Robson rushes Chasing the Dragon’s conclusion a bit, but otherwise she has constructed a marvelously complex story that is partly about stories. It’s interesting that Lila more or less wins the day at the end by using her sword/pen, a power the necromancer elf (not demon) wants, as a pen, writing a different ending to that figure’s story. So Quantum Gravity (the term finally appears once in this novel) is both multiplex narrative(s) & metafiction of a kind. I especially like the amazing way she collates so many SF & fantasy tropes into a heady mix. Lila’s changes – growth, maturing into a multiplex selfhood, whatever you want to call it – is not allegory: there is too much story for that, but rather think of William Gass’s concept of the novel as a vast metaphor. It’s clear Robson has had great fun writing this huge multi-volume novel, utilizing everything she knows about science fiction, fantasy, fairy tales, myth, & psychological fiction to construct a kind of exciting mash-up that is hugely entertaining.. She’s a fine stylist, so it’s a real delight at both the level of general story & the level of sentence by sentence movement. Even before reading Book Five, Down to the Bone, I can say it’s already a huge & terrific entertainment.