Again, it was the cover that did it. The eerie face, with its scored lines and sunburst of golden rays, reminded me of an ancient tribal mask. I was intrigued by the apparent disconnect between that and the sci-fi plot summarised on the back of the book. Gavin Chait’s first novel turned out to be quite different from any such novel I’ve read before, and not just for its African setting. While on the one hand it offers a sobering future, in which the planet’s ecology has been ravaged by greed, it also shows seedlings of hope, as people strive, even in the darkest days, to create a better world.
In the not-so-very-distant future, the world has become a harder, more ruthless place. The best and brightest have been lured to the orbital cities surrounding the Earth, colonies in which residents have a chance to start again, free of the ecological disaster of the home planet. Oil slicks blight the seas on the equator and, in the region formerly covered by the country of Nigeria, civil wars between bands of warlords have driven people from their homes. Life is cheap and any resistance often brings vicious reprisal. Manufacturing is carried out with 3D printers, producing everything from clothes to weapons, although the latter are often cheap and low-quality. Many of the outlying villages are now deserted, with the population washing up into the shanty-towns of Calabar, where gang bosses carve up the city territories between them. Knowledge and communication is run through the connect, an electronic network which holds much of the country under its web and, while allowing information to be gathered, also tracks and monitors those who use it. Within the connect, you can be found.
But not everyone has given up. Out in the forests, by the banks of the Akwayafe River, the village of Ewuru has been quietly working to bring a fragile dream to life. Here the people are committed to peace and harmony, to building an independent community. Over the course of a hundred and fifty years they have managed to acquire their own printers for the manufacture of goods, and they have their own market, sentries, council house and university. They are outside the connect, but they do have a sphere, a stored library of information and knowledge that they can access. Here they are at a safe distance from the oil pollution and the children run, laugh and play in the river. It’s idyllic, and the village elders are determined to keep it that way. It isn’t always easy, with the warlords’ militias probing into the forests in search of valuable debris fallen from space, and the arrival of refugees from the war zones, who swell the community and bring ‘otherness’ into their midst, but Joshua, Daniel, Sarah, Esther and their fellow leaders have gone a long way towards building the fairer city that their fathers and grandfathers dreamed of.
Then, one day, Joshua’s son Isaiah sees something strange in the sky: a trail of smoke, which as they watch becomes a small black craft, barrelling towards them. When it crashes in the forest, Joshua and his companions find the mangled body of a man inside. But he is still alive. Instructed by a disembodied voice to care for this stranger, they carry him back to the village and nurse him back to health. His name is Samara. He comes from Achenia, one of the orbital cities, and has escaped an unjust imprisonment on Tartarus, the US’s orbital prison. He’s desperate to get home, for his fellow Achenians are planning to finally sever their umbilical to the homeworld and set out on a voyage of exploration. All he requires is a little help. Joshua and his people agree to do all they can to aid Samara and, as they work together to send him home, they learn more about Achenia – a carefully structured society very different from that in Ewuru but inspired by the same principles: justice, peace and a good life in hard times. Much of what Samara tells them sounds too fabulous to be true, but he also tells them real stories – playful, truncated, fantastical fables of the kind the people of Ewuru can no longer tell for themselves. Through his stories and his friendship, Samara offers Joshua hope for a better world.
Chait’s novel is astonishingly accomplished for a debut. I was charmed to read that it grew out of a story he started writing when he was twelve, and it’s fantastic that a child’s idea has developed into such a richly-conceived world. There are sci-fi trappings aplenty here – the orbital cities, the advanced technology of Achenia, the symbiotic artificial intelligence which Samara carries within himself, and indeed the very idea of a spaceman fallen to earth – but essentially this is a story about goodness and the search for the good life. There are interesting parallels with The Just City, as Chait again raises the question of whether a truly moral world can employ artificial intelligences as slaves. It’s a tale about the power of stories, the connections made between people, the deep attachments we have to our homes – and the reasons why, sometimes, we have to decide to leave them. The writing is very elegant, switching between scenes of shocking brutality and images of incredible beauty, but the thing that really sets this book apart from other sci-fi that I’ve read is its heart. A deep humanity animates the very core of the book, and despite his epic scope, Chait focuses very closely on his characters. Gentle and thoughtful, Joshua and his companions are immensely appealing and even Samara, despite his enhanced military skills, is a thinker at heart.
Chait was born in Cape Town and has travelled in Nigeria while working on his book. I’ve never been to Africa, but the writing conjures up a concrete sense of place: the exotic (to me) names of the cuisine, the bright colours of the clothes and the landscape, and the scents and sounds of Ewuru. It’s a beautifully constructed novel, interrogating the question of what makes us human and what makes us humane. And, since there are many scenes which would look superb in the cinema, I hope there will one day be some interest in film rights. It would be much better to watch an adaptation of this kind of intelligent, thoughtful science fiction than to have yet another summer of rebooted superhero franchises.
Keep your eyes open for Chait. It’ll be very interesting to see what he comes up with next. In the meantime, do seek out this novel because I think you’ll be intrigued and pleasantly surprised even if you don’t normally read sci-fi (which I don’t, not all that much). Of course, if you do read it, come and let me know what you make of it.
I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair and honest review