Keeping it Real: Quantum Gravity Book One
(Gollancz, £10.99, 279 pages, trade paperback, also available
in hardback priced £18.99, 18 May 2006. Gollancz, £6.99,
279 pages, paperback, November 2006.)
not read Robson before but was intrigued by her discussion/interview
with Jon Courtenay Grimwood at the 2006 Eastercon so jumped at the chance
to review this book. The prospect of a Book One, though, did make the
heart sink a bit and indeed Keeping It Real starts inauspiciously
with an extended info dump.
In 2015 an accident with a supercollider distorted space-time and the
Earth - now called Otopia - exists alongside other worlds containing
elves, faeries, demons and elementals. Magic is a potent force throughout
all six worlds and travel between them is relatively easy though restricted.
It is always neater when such background is conveyed bit by bit in the
body of the story but perhaps Robson didn't want to make her readers
work too hard at this.
The action begins sometime in the 2020s. Our heroine, Lila Black, has
had previous experience of the Elvish world, Alfheim, where she was
almost killed by Dar, an Elvish secret agent, but has been nursed back
to health on behalf of Otopia's security services whom she now works
for. She is part cyborg, with limbs augmented by hi-tech weaponry, an
internal AI, electromagnetic spectrum access, wireless connections to
the internet, CCTV, etc - all powered by an internal tokamak. (Which
struck me as a bit unlikely in the 2020s.)
Another minor infelicity was that Lila seems to be American. A lot
of the usages reflect this but Robson's control here slips at times;
there is a mention of Customs and Excise, a reference each to 'Allo
'Allo and It Ain't Half Hot, Mum (!!) a character uses "sodding"
as an adjective and we also have an impeccably British term for a sexual
encounter (by the way; how refreshing it is to see the act described
as "a shag" in a work that's nominally SF) but of course there
is a degree of wriggle room for an author here as the 2015 accident
has affected history.
Lila's mission is to protect Zal, an elf who has become a rock star
in the "normal" world but who is the subject of death threats
from his own. Unfortunately she isn't particularly successful and after
a motorbike joust with Dar and his allies Zal is abducted back into
Alfheim in the claws of a huge phoenix.
The badly wounded Dar persuades the less damaged Lila he is a good
guy after all and talks her into taking him over to Alfheim where the
pair are enabled to heal each other in a kind of bonding process. They
set out to find Zal, pursued by various night creatures and agents of
Lila rescues a pursuing elf, called Tath, from the creatures but Dar
subsequently knifes him. When Lila touches the body Tath merges his
(essence/soul/aura) with her. And then things get complicated. Lila
becomes wiser to what passes for politics in Alfheim (there is a hint
of stock casting feudalism here.) A water dragon makes a contributory
appearance. Tath's unavoidable presence is a help and a hindrance, as
are Lila's augmentations. There are levels of betrayal to outdo Alistair
I'm not quite convinced of the SF rationale for the existence of elves,
faeries and what not in Robson's six worlds (nor of its geological manifestation
in Alfheim) but the story can't exist without them. The genre is an
interesting conception, though - cyberfantasy, anyone? magepunk? --
if in the end a bit limiting.
There are some serious undertones to the book, of class and racial
conflict - an implicit reproof to little Earthers everywhere - but overall
this is more of a jeu d'esprit (or should that be jeu d'elfe?). And
anyone who works in an explicit nod towards The Crazy World Of Arthur
Brown's "Fire" to an important confrontation scene has to
Doubtless we'll see others of Robson's six worlds in Quantum Gravity
Books Two and Three (which might reveal what the gravity part is all
about) but I'd have been happy enough to finish here even if there are
some loose ends. It would also be tempting to go for the idea that Lila
Black is Robson as she might wish herself to be but that would be to
fall into the cardinal reviewing error of assigning to the author the
views and attributes of her characters.
And there is a strange quote from Peter Hamilton on the cover which
says, "It's good. It's really very good indeed," which reads
to me as if he's surprised. After hearing Robson speak at Eastercon,
I'm not. And it would be a grisly curmudgeon indeed who denied this
book was entertaining.
Elsewhere in infinity plus: