The Ends of a World: Allegory and SF in Sam Taylor and Vandana Singh

The Island at the End of the World, by Sam Taylor
The Island at the End of the World, by Sam Taylor

The Island at the End of the World has a very effective PR man. For any book which rests on a twist, the marketing conundrum must be: ‘How do we sell this book without giving away the best thing about it?’ I am about to give away the best thing about Sam Taylor’s third novel, so look away now if you don’t want your enjoyment spoiled as I stick it to The Man.

My review copy of the book came from Strange Horizons, an online magazine specialising in science fiction and fantasy. The book’s blurb sets it in a near future in which the seas have risen and the world as we know it has ended, leaving a father, his three children, and their ark marooned on an isolated blob of dry land. A review in The Independent gave the reason for this turn of events as a ‘total war’. A clear case of mainstream SF, then – Niall Harrison, Strange Horizon’s reviews editor, set me to work.

The only catch was – and here is where I stick to The Man – all of this is nonsense. Taylor’s book, like his first novel, The Republic of Trees, is more an allegory of social government in which he contrives for his characters to be set apart from wider civilisation in some way barely plausible, enabling them to be a bit Roussean and a bit bonkers. In The Island at the End of the World, this crazy takes the form of the father’s increasingly fractured religious mania; there has been no apocalypse, and there has been no flood. In truth, he’s a survivalist who is lying to his children, secreting them on the top of a remote mountain and building – incredibly – a moat around them in order to convince them they are surrounded by an impassable ocean.

Even part way into the novel, it’s not hard to guess this ‘twist’ – very early on, in fact, the father is seen to be a liar. But the careful silence of its publicity on all this did leave Strange Horizons without a book to review – even the war the Indie mentioned demurely is so far from immediate, let alone total, as to render everything about it, bar the name of the President, a thin echo of Iraq or Afghanistan.

So Taylor cheats, employing the setting of an SF story for his convenience, and establishing it without much of a nod towards plausibility. The family drove out to the mountain, rather than rowed out; the children, fortunately, were too young to remember it, and too dull to guess; their mother joined them at first, but eventually left with nary a peep to the kids; the water around them is rainwater which Pa has collected in his little ditch; he has bought along with him clothes, books and a computer, which he uses frequently to look at old photographs. Here, the allegory – the elaboration upon his theme from The Republic of Trees, of how we build societies and upon what we build them (lies and malevolent charisma) – is king, quite lording it over any pretence to credibility. Taylor is interested in how fleeting can be the delights of Nature, how inevitable is the human will to power. As the chaps at Three Guys One Book have noted, this is a direct extrapolation from that first of Taylor’s novels. The Island at the End of the World is an infinitely more mature work, but it still doesn’t bother to be believable in setting.

Distances, by Vandana Singh
Distances, by Vandana Singh

This sort of thing drives SF critics barmy, of course – and with some good reason. As Matt Cheney noted long ago, “One of the appeals of any form of fantasy fiction is its ability to make what would be metaphorical in one context into literal reality within the context of the story.” Allegory can after all be very weak, since it is so gruesomely difficult to craft one which is all encompassing, and is so deadening an interpretative tool; the way in which mainstream authors so often appropriate SF trappings for their shoddy thought experiments does a disservice to some of the hugely thoughtful worldbuilding which goes on inside the genre.

I’ve just finished reading Distances by Vandana Singh, an over-long novella which nevertheless has the not inconsequential strength of resisting the temptation of allegory. The far-future world crafted by Singh has a whole range of relevances, but no one focus. This refusal to reduce is one of the things which makes science fiction compelling: unlike metaphor, it does not pretend to match our experience exactly, to summarise it neatly. In short, at its best it tends not to cheat.

Still, Taylor is both a better writer and a more empathetic presence than Singh. If his tale is absurdly simplistic in many senses, his sense of voice and character invests it with real vitality – Pa in particular is a pungent narrator, veering between Biblical piety and foul obscenity, and his mental degradation is riveting. His son, divorced from civilisation, has developed an odd pidgin dialect which grants his passages a poignant quality, whilst his sister, who has learned language from Shakespeare, is all poetry and pith. Singh, on the other hand, is somewhat bloodless – her complex world falling on the deaf ears of a reader insufficiently engaged by her limp narrator.

Naturally, I’ll resist the temptation to wax allegorical about the relationship between mainstream and genre fiction – there are after all bland literary authors and vibrant genre characters. It does seem to me, however, that Taylor – though ultimately intellectually unsatisfying – crafts a more memorable fiction purely through vivid prose than Singh manages through careful and considered worldbuilding. Taylor is light but purple, and Singh dense but detached; were I to review The Island at the End of the World for a Strange Horizons more amenable to the mainstream fable, I might say that, as unlikely and unconvincing as it is, that trick of character makes for a ‘future’ which feels more immediate than Singh’s, for all the latter’s commendable thoroughness.

It’s a cheat’s trick, but it works every time.


18 thoughts on “The Ends of a World: Allegory and SF in Sam Taylor and Vandana Singh

  1. Interesting review, Dan. I’m glad most reviewers haven’t given away the twist, but I was still intrigued to read the reaction of a hardcore (perhaps the wrong word) SF reader/critic.

    You’re right in a way – I did use the appearance of a typical SF strategy to achieve what I wanted. (Although you’re wrong about the book being an allegory – it’s not.) Anyhow, I am interested in SF as a genre and would really like to find some SF authors whose prose and characters are genuinely powerful and believable.

    My only contact with the genre so far has been Philip K Dick and Kurt Vonnegut (who you probably don’t count as being SF anyway), plus odd books like Dhalgren and Nineteen Eighty-Four (does that count?). So if you could recommend something published in the last ten years, say, that is well-written enough to appeal to fans of literary fiction, but does not ‘cheat’, as you put it, then I’d be grateful.

    Sam Taylor

  2. Hi, Sam – thanks much for the comment. I’m very far from being a hardcore SF reader, let alone critic – for that you want the folks over at Torque Control. You could do worse than start following happenings there to begin picking up on genre fiction you’d enjoy. I tend to be much more negative about SF than they, but I’d recommend ‘The Scar’ by China Miéville as perhaps fitting your bill.

    As for the allegory thing – isn’t the author meant to be dead? 😉 Appreciate the input, though, and will ruminate. I enjoyed reading the book, quite separately from the issue of its SF content, and wrote this largely to thank Niall for the free copy by way of writing something vaguely relevant to his magazine’s interests. I recognise that talking about the book in this way is doing it something of a disservice – of course, it isn’t meant to be read as rigorously plausible in the SFnal sense. So thanks for taking it in good part – appreciate it.

  3. OK, thanks for that, Dan. And I’ll order ‘The Scar’ now.

    I expected similar reactions to this from crime fiction fans when I published my second novel, The Amnesiac (kind of an existential detective story), but most of them seemed to like it, to my surprise.

    I don’t have any problems with you ‘doing the book a disservice’ btw – it’s just looking at it from another angle, which is interesting.

  4. ‘The Scar’ veers closer to fantasy than SF, Sam, but a finely told tale it nevertheless is – not without its flaws, of course, but then what is? Enjoy!

  5. Right, I’m ordering that and ‘Perdido Street Station’ now, but while I’m at it, can you give me a brilliant and purely SF novel to read as well?

  6. Go for Ian McDonald’s ‘River of Gods’ or M John Harrison’s ‘Light’, if you can. You could also give David Marusek’s ‘Counting Heads’ a whirl – particularly its first section is nicely done (it dips further in).

    And at that point, you’re beginning to exhaust the recent SF novels I’ve read and actually liked!

  7. Hi Dan…

    Not sure if you’ll read this, but anyways… I read and really enjoyed Light. Beautifully written, fantastically entertaining. But ‘rigorously plausible’? Er, I don’t think so. The unlikeliness of the whole thing didn’t bother me in the slightest, but I still don’t understand in what way my book ‘cheated’ while Light didn’t. Could you enlighten me?


  8. Hi, Sam – glad you enjoyed Light. I recommended it just because of its beautiful prose, but as you point out it certainly has its weak points, most notably (because closest to our own experience) that serial killer nonsense. On other notes of plausibility, of course, all SF is essentially based on the unreal; but what it can do is build a world in such a way that, internally, those contradictions do not exist. This is the test of a good science fictional future, I think.

    Which is why I’d not try to conflate the issues of plausibility I had with The Island at the End of the World and the issues of plausibility we may have with, say, the quantum adventures of Seria Mau. Your work aims for mimesis, so I must match the actions of its characters, and the property of its world to those I know. If it had been a ‘proper’ SFnal future, that would not have been the case; so I’m not faulting the book in the way we may fault the bases of Ed Chianese’s future. I’m saying that, for me, Ma’s actions did not ring true, or that I didn’t believe Pa could successfully build that mountain hideaway in the way it is described. This may be my own conceptual failings, not yours – but they are issues of mimetic, not science fictinal, plausibility.

    Island… didn’t cheat in the same way Light does (and it undoubtedly does – there are better books for ‘worldbuilding’). It cheated in a different way, in the sense that it pretended to be a post-apocalypse story (and thus early on received the free speculative pass I’m talking about) and, well, wasn’t. These are issues of generic reading protocols, I guess.

    Does that make some sense?

  9. Thanks for taking the time to reply Dan, and yes, what you say makes sense. I’ve been reading (and enjoying) a lot of SF recently. Couldn’t get into China Miéville at all – it just seemed silly, pointless and overcomplicated to me – but I loved Solaris and (to a lesser extent) Neuromancer. In general, though, I seem to prefer SF that *doesn’t* ‘thoroughly worldbuild’ precisely because the thoroughness of the logicality in worldbuilding novels tends to make the story and characters secondary, and the prose rather clunky. At least that’s my experience so far. Can you think of any novels which might challenge that assumption? I’d love to be proved wrong.

  10. I think you’re approaching much the position I have on SF: that, by and large, in its obsession with ‘worldbuilding’ it forgets how important to credibility are character and prose. I’m very much a sceptical reviewer of hardcore SF for those reasons – of course, literary fiction can in turn be guilty of prizing character and prose over setting, so a knowledge of SF can be a useful critical tool in that sense.

    Most of the SF that challenges that bifurcation has long ago been co-opted as ‘literary fiction’, anyway (you mentioned 1984 yourself, and, lately McCarthy, Chabon and Lethem to name just three have all drawn on SF whilst burnishing it with literary values). The argument of a pro-SF critic would be that character is not something which hardcore SF is interested in, and so it should not be judged on the lack of it. I think of this as blatant special pleading, and a rare book like ‘Vurt’ by Jeff Noon shows that good SF can do prose, character and concept. (Although ultimately even there concept wins out.)

    By the way, Miéville’s critics level just that accusation at him and, to a large extent, it’s true. Did you try Perdido Street Station or The Scar? The latter is the more obviously ‘novelistic’, and can be seen to have characterisation at its centre.

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