“I leaned into HD. My body folded like a paper airplane and I went down as a shaft, shedding importune photons like confetti. He got closer and closer. Every beat of my heart was dedicated to this one thing. Fly like an arrow. Fly. Every breath. Every impulse to muscle and every thought. My teeth sang in the wind.” (p.25)
Tricia Sullivan won the Arthur C. Clarke Award in 1999 for her novel Dreaming in Smoke. She has written nine SF and three Fantasy books, but I’d wager you haven’t heard of her. (Although I would be happy to be mistaken.) I recently read a fascinating speech she gave at Stranimondi 2016 about the difficulty of attaining recognition as a female SF writer. Here is a link to that speech. Occupy Me (2016) is her latest book. I picked it up on impulse because I liked the sound of what I read on the back cover.
The story opens with a page of instructions for using a “HD waveform launcher” with a warning about its “internal gravity”. We are not told what it is or even what it does, just how to switch “from scan mode to launch mode.” (p.1) The narrative voice then switches to the second-person with the narrator telling “you” how a “briefcase turned up in your life.” (p.2) The problem is “you” don’t have any recollection of where this briefcase has come from. And for some reason you are afraid to open it. But at the last minute you pick it up and take it with you.
Thus begins Tricia Sullivan’s story. To quote Winston Churchill: “It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key.” Well, maybe that’s a little exaggerated but this is a book that revels in its showing and keeps the telling to a minimum. Sullivan drops you in the middle of her world and expects you to keep up. It’s a book that requires concentration; I often reread earlier parts of the book to bring myself back up to speed after putting it down. But it’s also one of the most exciting and imaginative stories I have read since Nnedi Okorafor’s The Book of Phoenix. And it isn’t all written in the second person.
The other main character is Pearl. She is working as a flight attendant when we first meet her. She claims to have wings, but they can’t usually be seen as they exist in a higher dimension. She may even be an angel. The trouble is she’s not really sure who she is or where she’s from. We join Pearl on her journey to rediscover her identity. And to find out who or what “hijacked” her.
“I touched them with invisible feathers. I soothed an insomniac grandmother with liver trouble and her Xanax-popping granddaughter. The baby on the Xanax-popper’s lap stopped crying when my unseen feather brushed the top of her head. I gave the respite of sleep to the university student returning to school after a funeral, […] I shone compassion on the shuttered windows of a London cabbie’s angry mind, softening the edges of his vision.” (p.18)
Scanning some of the reviews on Goodreads and Amazon, it seems that readers either really liked this book or found it too confusing. I really enjoyed the ride because as well as it being at times exciting, mind-blowing, funny and intelligent, it made me think and ask questions about what I had just read. There is a refreshing lack of info-dump. Plus, there are some beautiful passages of prose in here. For example:
“The clouds over Viana do Castelo were dense and shapely; I could feel them muffling the town, pressing the sea smooth while light wandered sidelong into the sky.” (p.38)
“The woods gather round you like a winter coat.” (p.53)
“They have woven this place from the wreckage of metal structure, from the scrambled desiccation of life forms reduced to dust and rime. From silicon and gold.” (p.110)
“I headed east, away from the searchlights, and then I saw it. Over the railway bridge the ancient animal glided black and lunar, like a cracked piece of sky.” (p.140)
The non-profit literary magazine Upcoming 4.Me concluded “It’s completely bonkers, incredibly brave and well worth exploring at ease.” I’m a big fan of the word “bonkers” and find this to be a nice summary of the book. If you are lacking a bit of bonkers-ness in your SF reading life, then I recommend giving Occupy Me a try. It might just blow your mind, in a good way.