on February 20, 2003
Empire of Bones starts out as a great concept, but the author lets herself slip by putting in some foreshadowing that is actually explicit information to the reader about what is to come. The last third of the novel loses momentum, and the ending is much too open and refuses to suggest answers to some major questions about self-determination and humankind's place in the Universe. Also, if the alien culture is so similar to India's and the Hindu religion, why didn't that culture become the dominant one on Earth? This is a wonderfully original story that loses power like a balloon running out of air. I wish I could rate it higher, but its flaws bring it down to a level of only above average.
on September 7, 2002
Liz Williams' fine "Empire of Bones" would probably be filed under "political science sf," and indeed it begins as if it's going to be a typical example of the naive and sentimental "downtrodden proletarian human meets the benevolent alien genre." Thankfully it quickly turns into something quite different. Set about 50 years from now it tells the story of Jaya Nihalani, an Untouchable and a freedom fighter (she's modeled after India's 20th-century "bandit queen" Poulhan Devi) who is wasting away from a mysterious disease in an Indian hospital. When she overhears her doctor talking to her arch-enemy, the army officer who put down her rebellion (he would have been perfectly happy under the Raj, and maybe Williams patterned him after the infamous British General Dyer), Jaya escapes from the hospital and quickly gets transported to the alien nano-techie "depth ship." Yep, the aliens have colonized us and now they've come to see if we're ready for prime time, and only Jaya . . . etc. etc.
But quickly events take an unexpected turn, the POVs (and the settings) become multiple (Williams' depiction of the culture of the aliens, at least as hierarchical as Jaya's own, is especially fascinating), and the story becomes bitter and cynical (readers of Williams' previous novel, "The Ghost Sister," will hardly be surprised at this turn). The two main alien characters turn out to be neither moral nor immoral (they're neither the all wise and beneveloent Spielberg creations nor the "bug eyed monsters" of early-20th-century lore), but merely bureaucratic schemers, more concerned with their personal advancement and with "office politics" than with the fate of the humans who they've created in the first place. There are some great set-pieces: at one point a movie star (she's from Bollywood, not Hollywood--the Americans are always off stage here), who is to appear in a biopic of Jaya's life, arrives at Jaya's hangout on a cloned mammoth with her own private army (complete with a helicopter): she is led to think it's up to her to save the world (not hardly). Like the book itself, it's a great conception.
It's bitter, sardonic, and a fast read. Political it may be, but it owes far more to Jonathan Swift than to Ursula LeGuin. You'll remember it a while.
on June 18, 2002
The basic idea behind this novel was interesting enough to send me to the corner book store at 1 in the morning, after reading a brief blurb in the NY TImes book section. And the prose was written smoothly enough, and with enough sense of drama, that I finished the novel within the day.
However this novel had major problems. The novel was split into two separate worlds - the alien world, and what was happening on Earth. What happened on the alien world was more of a distraction from the main plot than anything, scarcely tying in to events on Earth. The world was composed primarily of sci-fi cliches, aside from the idea of an advanced alien society being separated into castes, a genuinely interesting idea. Unfortunately, the author diminishes the impact of the castes by clearly siding against them as being unfair and artificial, rather than accepting them as the way of advanced beings. It's a patronizing attitude the author should be embarassed about.
What happens on Earth is, unfortunately, no great shakes either. If Liz Williams is going to introduce archetypical characters, such as a lead enemy who slaughtered Jaya's lover in front of her eyes and dedicated his life to killing Jaya, she should let the drama play out. Instead many characters just get dropped or ignored. In an amazing coincidince, her arch-enemy is lovers with the woman who plays Jaya in a Bollywood movie, a character in there for no good reason except, perhaps, the author's whim to talk about Bollywood.
Another reviewer mentions that this story is based off an earlier short story the author published. I'm not at all surprised to hear this, because this work, the second published novel by the author, had the feel of a grand but small vision, stretched much farther than it should have. The author strongly hints at a sequel; I have to believe that if she releases one, it will be painfully bad.
on April 27, 2002
Liz Williams is simply one of the best science fiction writers on the contemporary scene. Like her excellent previous novel, The Ghost Sister, Empire of Bones emerges from a fascinating premise that is meticulously developed in a gripping story populated with rich characters, both alien and human. And she writes beautiful, direct prose that is evocative without being ostentatious. Few science fiction authors can pull all of this off, but Williams is batting 1000 so far. I am already eagerly awaiting her next book.
on April 17, 2002
Empire of Bones is an extrapolation of my favourite Liz Williams short story, The Unthinkables. This short story, published in Interzone a couple of years ago, told the tale of an alien race that had a strict caste hierarchy, with the Unthinkables on the lowest rung. This had obvious overtones of the Untouchable caste in India, and in Empire of Bones, Liz Williams has made this comparison explicit, since her novel involves both the Unthinkables (or 'The Naturals') and the Untouchables.
Elements of the earlier story resound. The Khaithoi caste is insectile, while Sirru's caste is birdlike. Readers of The Unthinkables will immediately identify with the likeable Sirru, and like him, will distrust the aloof and mysterious Khaithoi. The Khaithoi are far more educated than the Desqusai (Sirru's people), and exclude the lower caste by employing their higher concepts in a secret and exclusive language in Sirru's presence. Jaya Nihalani, on the other hand, exploits her membership of the Untouchable caste to feign ignorance of English whilst she is poked and prodded at in a UN hospital. She may be the object under examination by the English doctors, but she still strives towards subjectivity and empowerment by eavesdropping on their discussion of her.
Despite the fact that this novel is published in America, and will presumably have a largely American audience, this is primarily a British post-colonial Science Fiction novel. This distinction is important: the aliens here have no interest in sullying the White House Lawn by landing there, as they might conceivably do in the archetypal American imperial popular science fiction narrative. My view is that the Americans are now producing popular science fictions that are the equivalent of those the British produced a hundred years ago, at a similar juncture: the imminent fear of the fall of empire.
As is to be expected in a novel written by a woman, there is no misogyny directed at women. Indeed, the world's oldest profession is presented in a sympathetic light and has a valuable role to play. Having said that, although Anarres the courtesan is not threatened with death as punishment due to the open broadcasting of her allure, she and Ir Yth are employed very much as tools. Sirru and Ir Yth are the stereotypical 'dysfunctional' parents - it's no wonder that their young 'uns have gone so wrong (although these are not Ir Yth's progeny - she's more of the wicked step mum). Like many of the wives in the novel except Jaya, Ir Yth is unfaithful, and thus Sirru, like all the husbands, are cuckolded - although this must be even more humiliating if you do actually look like a cockerel. Unlike the American popular science fiction narrative, Sirru the alien is not presented as a threat. True enough, Jaya misunderstands his intentions, and like a vampire, Sirru can transform his body to hide from the gaze of humans so he can infiltrate his neighbours and surroundings with ease; but we know that he is also a hero, since he is presented in a sympathetic light. Sirru is the very antithesis of a vampire: he gives his own blood and bodily fluids to save life (although his method of giving blood can still be quite violent). His naiveté of human affairs is presented in a humorous light, but he is ultimately more knowledgeable than he appears...
Liz Williams has spent a great deal of time in Asia, and has no doubt observed the Indian caste system in action, but this actually turns out to be that very British thing - a novel about class. Perhaps one thing that the British colonisers (that Liz Williams mentions so often), found so appealing about India was the complementarity of the caste system to the class system. Amir is certainly Anglo-Indian, so his predecessors must have embraced the British in more ways than one. Sirru and Jaya do have a couple of dialogues about free will, but it is the explicit comparison between Amir and Sirru that best expresses it. Unlike Sirru, Amir has already lost his ancestral lands to the Japanese businessman Tokhai. Like the rural English, Amir finds himself priced out of his local area and his palace is sold off to become a country cottage/second or third home. Amir exerts his free will by trying to cling on and enforce the old order, but unlike Sirru and Jaya, he does not realise that the wheel will go round and round, no matter what he does. Nowhere One and the Naturals, despite their revolt against the caste system, still have an inherent hierarchy.
I have written far more than I had intended to about The Empire of Bones, which in itself is indicative of its appeal (interested readers can contact me to read the rest of the essay online). In an interview with Liz Williams, she told me that she tries to make every word count in her fiction. This is certainly true in The Empire of Bones. The novel has an intricate plotline, such a sound and compelling structure, that there is a twist and turn with almost every page. Unlike Jaya's audience when she's a conjuror's assistant, there will be few hecklers to detract from Liz Williams' conjuring tricks. In the character of Tokhai, Liz Williams seems to have returned to the theme of her PhD, that of the philosophy of science. She's interested in just how far scientists will go in undermining ethical boundaries. Tokhai may need a cane for his stereotypical mad scientist disability (although the disability is novel and pertinent to the novel), but boy, can he run and run! Tokhai has far less angst than Mary Shelley's most famous creation though; rather it is Sirru who has the stress of playing the Promethean father. If you've a sensitive and discerning nose, you should find Liz Williams' fiction to be far more spicy and appealing.
on March 31, 2002
In 2030 India, Hindu Fundamentalists take control of the government and reinstate the caste system. Riots erupt as the Untouchables try to reverse the political and social systems, but their caste and only their caste, are struck down by a deadly plague. This disease gives credence to the belief that the Untouchables are beneath the notice of the other, higher castes.
Jaya Nihalani, an Untouchable, has fought against the government for much of her life and is regarded as a terrorist. When a mutated form of the plague strikes she is turned into a Receiver, able to communicate with a ship manned by those who seeded our planet millennium ago. Now Earth has evolved enough to be absorbed into the Rasatran Empire and Jaya must make sure that the assimilation goes well or Earth will be destroyed.
EMPIRE OF BONES is a fast-paced science fiction thriller that shows what could happen when First Contact occurs. The homeworld of Rasatra's politics, culture and social structure is crafted in such intricate detail it feels as if Liz Williams is a native social anthropologist. Yet the talented writer never slows down the action while providing characters, both human and alien, that are believable and understandable inside the strong plot. All this makes for a great novel and easy conversion into an excellent movie.