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.