Gardner, James Alan: Ascending

A heroine who’s not all she seems, even if she is entirely transparent (what with being made of glass)

Oar, the heroine of this highly entertaining book, is made of glass. Unbreakable glass but glass all the same. Her people live on sunshine and rain but in a twist on the Tiresias legend, immortality isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. After forty five years or so, her people inexorably fall victim to “tired brains” and fall into a comatose state. As the story opens, Oar is the last of her race still active. She’s self-educated from a variety of computer and other resources and as a result, her first person narrative veers wildly from astute observation to astounding naivety. With unquenchable self-confidence, she loftily condescends to “tolerance in the company of irrational persons” but is then puzzled to discover “humans have a foolish taboo against setting infants on fire”. Having read extensively from what must be a computer archive of pulp adventures and romances, she frequently talks in capitalised clichés and chapters are divided into sections with mock-lofty headings such as “One does not expect hauntings to occur inside lungs.” It’s a tribute to James Alan Gardner’s remarkable writing that this highly individual and mannered style never becomes tiresome.

Oar has appeared in an earlier book Expendable but that need not concern us. There’s a quick preface to tell us what we need to know and other back-story is skilfully slotted into the narrative. Once Oar is rescued from her isolation by a handily arriving alien, the adventure romps along and we are soon on a voyage in a living ship, pursued through space by the inevitable bad guys. The space we find ourselves in is breezily idyllic, with higher beings lavishing technological gifts on lesser races and blithely executing any sapient being managing to get off planet with ambitions to kill another, so that’s all right then. Oar spares the scientific aspects of space flight little more than a puzzled observation on why physicists insist on calling their rules “laws” when they are so frequently broken. Wouldn’t “The Generally Good Idea of Gravity” or “Three Useful Guidelines of Thermodynamics” be more appropriate? Jokes come thick and fast, as for instance the practicalities of a living ship are explored. How would you like to get inside your vessel by being swallowed?

Accordingly, we settle down to a comic space opera poking gentle fun at the conventions of the genre but as the story unfolds, we begin to see things differently, just like Oar when she uses her thumbnails, carefully spaced, to create her own personal telescope. The impact of these endless gifts from this seemingly benevolent higher race, the Shaddill, turns out to be very different to what one might imagine. Is this intentional? If it is, can the lesser races undo the damage? On a more immediate level, how are our heroes and heroines going to get out of a succession of fires and frying pans. What is going to happen to Oar, whose loneliness and fragility become more and more apparent, despite herself?

I found this one of the most unusual and entertaining reads of the year so far. I hesitate to use the work quirky, because that so often means lightweight and this book has some deceptively weighty ideas lurking to catch you like an unnoticed rake in the grass. Highly recommended and I shall be certainly be searching out more of James Alan Gardner’s writing.

This review originally appeared in The Alien Online.

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