Tuesday, October 30, 2012
Félix J. Palma - The Map of the Sky
At the time of writing, it’s been about three weeks since I published a negative and damning review of Félix J. Palma’s The Map of Time on Strange Horizons. It’s been about two weeks since I, filled with trepidation but obligated by a review copy received some weeks before, began that book’s sequel, The Map of the Sky. As I progressed through its opening and stayed up late for its middle, I was reminded that The Map of Time had had many, many good qualities along with its bad. The Map of the Sky exhibited all of those. Still, frightened of another disappointment, I tried to keep myself aloof. Hundreds of pages later, that task wasn’t going so well. The expected fall from quality just didn’t come. When penning the sequel, Palma seems to have decided to leave his pseudo-twists and questionable gender politics on the cutting room floor, leaving us with a swanky, rollicking time travel adventure that can proudly boast not only Martians but more literary giants than you can shake a hardcover at.
Like its predecessor, The Map of the Sky wastes no time in describing itself as a “melodrama” (p. 1), and it does its best to live up to and exploit that characterization with every page that follows. Characters, emotions, and events are all twisted for effect. Under Palma's deft hand, the novel's cast and every object will never fizzle when they can vividly and gleefully explode.
Palma writes at a gleeful, meandering, and stylized sprint. He often leaps over setup and causality with a knowing glance that assures us that, well, we all know what that part is, so why don’t we just get to the good stuff? That is not, however, to imply that our path is a direct one. When Palma spots something interesting off in the periphery, he charges at it, and it’s not uncommon for us to leave the main story wholly aside as we chase down some fascinating tangent or other.
This happens on a micro and macro scale. Chapter one has H.G. Wells learn about Martians on Earth. Not long after, chronologically, the invasion kicks off. But we don’t see that for a few hundred pages, because first we leap back in time to the arrival of the Martians and the ill-fated arctic expedition, staffed in part by Edgar Allan Poe, that encountered the Envoy as he landed. In the midst of that digression, innumerable other digressions follow. After all, though we begin on the ship, we then have to know how the explorer got there. And that entails a further digression on the subject of the hollow Earth…
The rapid, shiny-object-driven course of the narrative doesn’t only apply to the order the events are told but the events themselves. The Map of the Sky is not a straight arrow but a succession of different attempts and eventualities in the face of changing circumstance. Palma produces scenes, arcs, and set pieces, and then he moves on, and that winking fluidity comes to dominate the novel’s feel more than any single section. It’s that fluidity that allows him to roll between huge ranges of tone and style. The claustrophobic Horror of the barren Arctic, a series of increasingly outlandish romantic misunderstandings peppered with the behind the scenes sweetness of two servants falling in love, the widescreen and raygun-filled battle for London, and the building melancholy of the novel’s penultimate scenes are all effectively drawn and contrasted.
Still, that many modes and narratives all firing at once does occasionally lead us down a bit of a dead end, and on more than one occasion Palma must retune the novel and shift us to another track while we watch, something that is only one of the many ways Palma has not only let the reader in on the game but made that shared knowledge the very basis of his work. It’s that tacit agreement, established by the narrator’s frequent addresses to the reader and Palma’s perpetual sly grin, that allows Palma to circumvent the harsher laws of plausibility and narrative and reach greater heights still of wonder and effect. Even the characters seem to almost share the knowledge that their lives are observed. Beyond all of Palma’s tricks of narration and stories within stories, the characters know that the watchers matter. As our dear explorer friend admits at the climax of the Arctic portion of our tale: There was no longer any need for heroic or desperate deeds, because no one was watching. From the very first scene, the drama had taken place without an audience, in the intimacy of that godforsaken stretch of ice (p. 151).
Awareness of audience, here, is not just a sly teller of jokes or a narrative enabler, for this is a story about stories, and so it is only fair that it itself crosses the final barrier between character and reader. But, before we quite reach the effect of tales, I had better establish the background of their telling, retuning this review in the midst of its forward march to encompass something not quite covered and to, if I may be so obnoxiously pretentious as to do so, stylistically ape the reviewed in the review. Perhaps, however, the sheer scale of the subject I now turn us to can forgive the awkwardness of its broaching.
We come to the universe as a whole, and it cares little that we have. Despite its brilliant colors and fun, The Map of the Sky is a denizen of the Weird regions that so many of this blog’s most-reviewed authors dwell in, even if it does so from a rather Science Fictional perspective with rather more invasion to it than, say, the urban decay of Thomas Ligotti’s work. The Martians (who are not, in fact, from Mars, but, really, isn’t it far more important that everyone thinks they are?) have exhausted the resources of their own planet. And so they have come for ours. This is, needless to say, a rather unjust setup. But, as the Martians know, “The Cosmos care nothing for the Earthlings’ absurd morality.” (p. 315) This is a novel about facing what is beyond comprehension, about seeing a world greater than the one you knew, and then (with the literary equivalent of surround sound) being invaded by it. We are outmatched by it. Our plans fall to nothing. In a universe vaster than comprehension turned hostile, we’ve little left.
But we do have stories. Amidst death and destruction, Palma seeks to justify life and what makes it matter even without the guarantees or purposes of God or right and wrong. The answers he comes up with? Love and dreams. The first of those is conveyed in a headstrong, outlandish fashion that leads to some great lines (Their laughter intertwined, like fireflies crossing in the night sky (p. 477) but didn’t wow. The idea of dreams, however, rather does, for now we cycle back into the idea of stories and how not only laughter is here intertwined but heroism, hope, dreams, and belief. How delightful ideas can have their own work and how great deeds are more the products of words than of acts. The novel’s sprawl is less random than it first appears. By the end, most (though certainly not all) of it has come together in one way, that of shaping the beliefs and tales that form its backbone, and, amidst the silliness and the strife, Palma strikes a vein of gold. As is said: Man needed to dream. (p. 192)
So, what of the negatives? If you clicked through to read my review of The Map of Time that kicked this one off, you were likely expecting rather more of them. After all, that novel did not exactly work for me. But its two chief flaws were simply absent here. Admittedly, gender is not treated perfectly to my satisfaction. Every female character can handily be summed up as “love interest,” and only one achieves any note, and even she only does so when there isn’t a more important male narrator around (which happens the barest handful of times). But I can’t quite hang Palma for that, and I’ll admit that I was hypersensitive this time around to that and to the few other awkward moments (does Miss Harlow really have to almost faint?) because of this book’s predecessor. As for The Map of Time’s habit of pulling the rug out from under its reader, there thankfully isn’t a single instance of that here. This time around, when Palma promises something grand, he not only provides it but does one better.
The Map of the Sky swept me away. I don’t just use that expression because it’s a handy reviewing cliché with which to begin my concluding paragraph, either. By the midway point, I was distinctly feeling like someone who, filled with trepidation, dipped a toe into a seemingly unpleasant river and suddenly found himself three miles along, concerns well out of sight on the abandoned shore, and having the time of his life. On the first page, Palma writes: If our tale does not take you to the dizziest heights of exhilaration, we will refund your five cents so you may spend them on a more exciting adventure, if such a thing exists! (p. 1) At the time, I marked that quote out because I thought that a demand for a promised refund might be a witty, if perhaps cruel, way of ending a scathing review. But it seems that Palma can keep his money. And, furthermore, it seems that, against all odds, I’ll be sticking around for book three.