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Was by Geoff Ryman

Gollancz Fantasy Masterworks, 2005, 456p. First published 1992.

Was cover

As I posted in my review of the same author’s Air (or Have Not Have) I didn’t much take to Ryman’s earlier (short) works. I remember Colin Greenland at an Eastercon pointing this book out and saying, “You’ll have read this.” I shook my head and said I had a blind spot where Ryman was concerned. He seemed taken aback. When I saw this recently in a second–hand bookshop I thought I might give it a whirl.

Following her mother’s death a young girl called Dorothy, along with her dog, goes to live with her Aunty Em in Kansas. Any similarity to a well-known film (and slightly lesser known book) is entirely intended. Was is suffused with references to them. But this is no mere retread. Ryman takes the opportunity to illuminate life in late nineteenth century Kansas and so contrast his realistic approach to the smoothed out film version.

Dorothy Gael’s life in her new home is harsh – and unremitting. She does not get transported by a tornado to a more colourful world. Moreover, there are enough wicked witches in our own to suffice for anyone – and not only witches. Dorothy’s lack of understanding of her new environment only exacerbates her estrangement. The main focus of the book is on Dorothy’s experiences but there are chapters setting out Judy Garland’s life as viewed by herself as a child, by her make-up artist on The Wizard of Oz and by her mother after her success, with quotes at chapter heads from various sources commenting on the making of the film, the book on which it was based or the history of Kansas. Topping and tailing it all is the tale of a 1980s (HIV positive) actor trying to find traces of Dorothy Gael in historical documents.

Ryman’s imagining of Dorothy’s story has her surviving into the 1950s where, as a troublesome inmate of a home, she is befriended by a young man who goes on to a successful career in counselling (and one of whose later clients is the actor.) Dorothy tells him, “People are the only thing that can make you feel lonely,” and that Was is “a place you can step in and out of. It’s always there.”

Yet Fantasy comes to the book late. For the most part the tone is resolutely realistic and until very near the end any intrusion of the strange can be taken as imagination or illusion.

In what is perhaps a touch of overkill Ryman has The Wonderful Wizard of Oz’s author, L Frank Baum, encounter Dorothy while employed as a supply (Ryman uses the term substitute) teacher – but it does precipitate a further deterioration of Dorothy’s young life. After this, “Dorothy needed magic….. She began to have another fantasy… walking backwards through the years… back home… away from Is into the land of Was.”

As a re-examination of, a commentary on, the mythology of Oz, this is a fine work. It’s also a damn good read.

Ryman’s afterword, where he discourses on the relative utilities of realism and fantasy, of the necessary distinction between history and fantasy, is also worth a look.

Pedant’s corner. Apart from the USian in which the whole book was produced, it was page 246 before I came across an irritant – laying instead of lying, which occurred once more. Unusually, I didn’t spot any typos. This may be because the book is a reprint.

Air (or Have Not Have) by Geoff Ryman

Gollancz, 2005

Air cover

I’ve always had a blind spot where Geoff Ryman is concerned. It dates back to his earliest story in Interzone when we were effectively told by the then editor, “You will like this.” Being thrawn, of course, I did not. It didn’t help that the grammar in the piece was a bit shaky. But Air (or Have Not Have) comes larded with praise and awards. So I relented and gave him a whirl.

The start of Air didn’t bode well with rather too much telling of story rather than revelation going on. However this aspect soon settled down when events got into their stride.

In the remote mountain village of Kizuldah somewhere in Karzistan in Central Asia, Mrs Chung Mae is a fashion adviser. Her occupation sounds grander than it really is for the village is without television, or internet access, and the fashion is rudimentary stuff. Kizuldah’s initial remoteness is a problem, though. Deep in the Amazonian Rain Forest or the Indonesian jungle, perhaps, but I found it difficult to credit a central Asian village so cut off from modernity. There is an element to this of Ryman having his cake and eating it. It is necessary for his story – which could not be told effectively without it – but fails to suspend disbelief.

In such an environment, the premature testing of the technology of Air, whereby people will be able to access the internet via their heads, through the air – a bit of authorial hand-waving in the explanation of this development I thought – would always lead to problems.

This is the moment which sets the narrative running and makes it an SF story. It is yet another twist on what is actually a standard Science Fiction plot kicker. Most SF depends on something like this. There are myriads of SF stories, some of mine included, that could be titled, “When It Changed.” Ryman is about to publish one himself. Here, however, apart from the premature test, it is the build up to the real change which Ryman foregrounds.

During the test, Mae witnesses and experiences the death – caused by her distress at Air – of blind Mrs Tung, whose head she is in at the time. From now on Mae has all of Mrs Tung’s memories and can also partly see the future. Using the only TV available (there is another later) and against all sorts of obstacles within the village and without, Mae sets about creating a business selling local embroidered clothing worldwide via the TV’s internet link. She is illiterate so has to do all this from scratch and by voice commands.

Air can come in UN or Gates formats. (Gates as in opening and going through but also suggestive of Bill, nice one Geoff.) There is a tiny subplot about the conflict between the two formats as it affects Karzistani politics. Mae is of course pivotal in its resolution.

Ryman’s Karzistan has the sort of history you might expect from its location, wars, banditry, natural disasters and the rest.

The novel also incorporates a love story, a redemption story, a wicked government story, a repressed minority story, all the minutiae of small village life and, a Rymanesque touch this, an unusual pregnancy. The characters are well rounded and believable.

I watched Ryman receive the BSFA award for this novel at the 2006 Eastercon and have heard him speak on panels. He seems a nice bloke.

Am I won over? Partly. I’ve two more nominated novels from that year on my yet to read list before I can assent to its pre-eminence but Air (or Have Not Have) is a worthwhile read.

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