m. c. de marco: To invent new life and new civilizations...

Islands in the Seventies

At Boskone this weekend I blamed my lack of writing on a lack of reading. Perhaps to punish myself, I picked up the free NESFA Press books, plus a couple of used paperbacks from the freebie tables. Rather than standing around listening to other people smof, I decided to read one of them, Islands by Marta Randall (Pyramid Books, 1976).

I finished it Monday, and decided to review it Tuesday after I had spent some time separating my blog archives into original posts vs. linkblog posts, and noticed that all my recent long posts were about computing instead of writing.

I googled the book wondering if it was even out there, and was surprised to find 3 reviews of it already on Goodreads, one of which linked to a much more extensive review. More surprising still, the Goodreads edition info showed the cover from a 1980 reprint, and listed another reprint in 1999 plus various e-book editions. Marta Randall herself turned out to be the first female SFWA president; Islands was her first novel, but she went on to write more.

Both the reviews and the blurbs on newer editions of the book give away much of the ending, such as it is, but I was fortunate to have found the original paperback with the Vincent Di Fate cover and a less revealing blurb. I’ll try to avoid major spoilers as well.

The story of our aged heroine Tia is told in alternating chapters of her living a lonely life as the only mortal among perpetually young immortals, and chapters flashing back to events of her youth. She ran away from a boyfriend, Paul, when her routine immortality treatments failed in her youth, and mysteriously invites Paul back into her current life, which consists of diving for pre-apocalypse artifacts from a large but only lightly crewed futuristic ship. She doesn’t have a good reason for her hobby, nor for bringing Paul back into her life.

Maybe because it was the Seventies, the immortals (and our unwonted mortal heroine) spend most of their time having amazing but meaningless sex. It takes some time and explicit telling to discover that Tia was not in love with Paul but was in love with another man she met on the Moon, whom she left just as abruptly as she left Paul (and as abruptly as she had left her friends in the misfit colony in Australia, in an unrelated flashback). Reviews to the contrary, she does rekindle her relationship with Paul in the (apparently polyamorous) present, but is ultimately disappointed by it.

The unnatural relations between the perpetually young Paul and abhorrently aged Tia exacerbate Tia’s conflicts with her crewmates, though the underlying nature of those conflicts are only partly revealed by the end. Tia’s mortal recklessness is an even larger source of conflict, especially once she discovers a mystery beneath the sea that only she is willing to risk investigating.

Under the sea the story takes a right turn into the mystical; even the immortality process that failed on Tia is revealed to be only partly scientific and not entirely understood. Though it has its tense and action-packed moments, the ending is best left in the Seventies from whence it sprung. Its mysticism is far more for forgivable than its failure to tie together the threads of Tia’s life by anything more than authorial mystical fiat.

Islands is a quick read, with interesting characters, good pacing, and a unique mingling of science and mysticism that harkens back to the World of Null-A and other, more convincing forays into soft science fiction. It fails, I think, on world-building; while the immortals' fear of anything risky is quite realistic, their static youth culture, uniformly meaningless sex, and total detachment from their children (briefly shown in a flashback to Tia as an emancipated 14-year-old) are not realistic at all. One must postulate an emotional retardant effect to the procedure that confers immortality to make any sense of these perpetually immature characters—one with no grounds in the text itself.

I missed a panel at Boskone about science fiction that withstands the test of time, and this novel seems like a good example of failing that test. If only a native of the Seventies can be enthusiastic enough about your ephemeral notions of sex, family, mysticism, etc., to suspend disbelief about the world of your Seventies novel, then you’re going to fail the test of time. But it may be worth it to fail a future test in return for sales and recognition during the Seventies themselves.