Chaga Ian McDonald (Victor Gollancz, £16.99, 416pp, hc). October 1995. [Published in the US as Evolution's Shore (1995, Bantam Spectra, 0-553-37435-4, $12.95, tp).]
What can I say? This is the kind of novel that makes other writers wonder why they bother.
Chaga is McDonald's sixth, and best, novel. Those of you familiar with the superb Desolation Road, King of Morning, Queen of Day or Hearts, Hands and Voices will need no further persuasion to go out and buy it. Those of you new to McDonald, or only familiar with the best-forgotten Out on Blue Six (where the author sank in a deadly brew of self-indulgence and self-parody) ... let me persuade you.
Chaga - 'A Novel of Africa, Ambition, the Alien and Football' - is an expansion of ideas first used in the 1990 novelette 'Towards Kilimanjaro'. The story starts with strange changes affecting Saturn's moons: Hyperion disappears, Iapetus starts to turn progressively black. Young Gaby McAslan immediately feels destiny calling: her life is changed by these strange events, she feels herself drawn towards the mystery. When a meteor strikes Mount Kilimanjaro and, despite a military clampdown, word leaks out that something alien has started to grow, Gaby has to investigate. Now a SkyNet journalist, she manoeuvres and manipulates her way towards a career move to Africa, where the alien landscape - called the Chaga, after a local tribe - is spreading, destroying and/or transforming (depending on your viewpoint) all in its path.
Chaga finds McDonald at his lyrical best. The novel opens quietly, contemplatively, on an Antrim evening full of sights and smells. You really can smell that Irish salt-marsh. You really are there. Only you're not. If you were there with Gaby and her dogs you wouldn't experience it anywhere near as intensely as this - you wouldn't see or hear or smell as much, none of it would be so vividly detailed. No, you're not there with Gaby, you're more than there.
The next chapter takes us to Africa and in the space of a car ride from Nairobi's airport McDonald does it again: you're not there in the car with Gaby and her new boss T P Costello, you're more than there.
McDonald's novels have ranged from rich fantasy to remixed Bradbury to plain weird and wonderful. It was some time before it dawned on me that Chaga is actually a hard SF novel. This is largely because much hard SF leaves me cold - yes, I know, I'm guilty of the snobbery SF as a whole suffers: 'If it's this good it can't be (hard) SF...' One problem I tend to have with more traditional SF is its often crass and self-defeating depictions of the alien. In Chaga, McDonald eloquently describes that classic SF moment when the aliens emerge from their spaceship and ... all sense of wonder is instantly killed. Normally I would be in complete agreement with this critique if it was not for the fact that in this novel McDonald devastatingly defeats his own argument by taking us into the Chaga in a tour de force description of the alien to match the very best in the field. I don't really know how a writer can be this good, but I'm certainly glad that he is.
Chaga is a fine novel. Only it's not. It's far more than merely a fine novel.
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© Keith Brooke 6 April 1997