Harper Collins, 1993, 254p.
On a planet colonised by humans some time ago the Aboriginals are routinely given drugs and cosmetic surgery to make them more or less indistinguishable from their masters. They have become so human many of them have been converted to Christianity. From a British perspective it is tempting to see this aspect of the novel as an allegory of Empire and the morality of colonisation, of manipulating the natives – even unconsciously – is always in the subtext.
Simon Marayam is an envoy from Earth, which has suffered an environmental and population decline. He becomes involved with Katharine Styreme, a beautiful, piano playing Aboriginal, just as a rebellion against human rule is starting. The situation becomes more intricate when it becomes apparent that the planet’s other sentient inhabitants, the Coelestis of the title, were not totally wiped out by the human settlers. Before humans arrived the Coelestis had exercised a form of mind control over the Aboriginals, who considered them Gods. The drugs the aboriginals are given negate this effect.
Styreme and Mayaram are imprisoned by the rebels and as her drugs wear off she becomes increasingly detached from what Mayaram perceives as reality and more under the influence of the Coelestis.
Park employs various points of view to narrate his story and one of the strengths of the book is the divergence of the views of humans and Aboriginals over the same event(s). Styreme’s perceptions are depicted as more and more dream-like. This is one of the best explorations of what it might mean to be alien I can remember reading.
The planet itself is less convincing. Since it is tide-locked, life can only exist within a few hundred miles of the terminator. Yet the landscape and weather are described as if they were somewhere on 20th century Earth. A journey into the darkside does give us a glimpse over the horizon of a hellish Black Hole at the centre of the galaxy, though.
On a technical level as time went by I found Park’s stylistic tic of repeating a phrase within a sentence of it already being used – sometimes as the very next phrase – increasingly wearing.
Despite the resolution being what you might expect of a traditional SF story, Coelestis does not have the overall feel of Science Fiction. It is, however, a novel which transcends quibbles, illuminating about the self-deceptions people have about their relationships, how others see them, and how they believe only what they want to.