Beneath the World, A Sea by Chris Beckett

Corvus, 2019, 283 p. Published in Interzone 282, Jul-Aug 2019.

 Beneath the World, A Sea cover

“The ground of one world is the sky of the world below” runs one of the myths and legends of the Submundo Delta, the most inaccessible place on Earth, the Delta Beneath the World. A place of magenta trees with spiral leaves and flowers with bright pink mouths, overhung by a huge sun and moon as if inside a magnifying bubble, and not really below the outside world, it can be accessed only from South America via a long boat trip on the (perhaps too obviously named) River Lethe, passing through the Zona de Ovido, the Zone of Forgetfulness, all memories of which disappear the moment you leave it. The Delta has no radio communication with elsewhere, aeroplanes which try to penetrate its airspace all crash.

Such a cut-off world is a staple of fantastical fiction of course – fairyland, hollow hills, parallel worlds, alien planets and so on – but Beckett’s vision is a fresh take on the sub-genre even if the Delta is a slightly recycled though embellished version of the Caramel Forest of the planet Lutania in the same author’s collection The Peacock Cloak.

The Delta’s local human inhabitants are called Mundinos, and are descended from a group tricked into going there by a Baron Valente in the semi-distant past, long enough ago for them to have developed their own gods in the benign Iya, whose idol adorns every Mundino household, and the less indulgent Boca. More recent incomers are scientists and adventurers or hippie types plus the odd business man on the lookout for profitable exploitation.

Following a UN decree that a Delta life-form known as duendes, grey long-limbed, frog-like flaccid creatures with black button eyes, (somewhat reminiscent of the goblins of Lutania’s Caramel Forest) and which may be the offspring of trees – with which they perhaps form a single dimorphic species – are ‘persons’ entitled to the protection of the law, police Inspector Ben Ronson has been delegated from London to investigate their endemic killing by Mundinos. Duendes can project settlers’ thoughts back into human minds, “‘Things already inside your head ….. become as powerful as things you normally choose to focus on,’” and build enigmatic structures called castelos. Despite their persecution the duendes keep intruding on Mundinos’ space.

What makes all this SF rather than fantasy is the attempt at scientific rationale. “‘There’s no DNA equivalent. No ‘animals’ or ‘plants’ in the delta,’” Ronson is told. “It seemed to him that it was just about possible to imagine that a completely different form of life might not only have a different chemistry and different anatomy, but might even involve the mind-stuff itself being configured in some manner unfamiliar to human beings,” while, “‘the trees and the harts and the duendes and so on aren’t competing against each other … any more than our blood cells are competing against our bone cells,’” but quite why the story is set in nineteen ninety is not clear. The Delta is obviously not quite of this world, making the tale an alternative history does not add to that.

Beckett also undercuts expectations. Despite the set-up what we have here is not a police procedural, nor a straightforward crime novel with a clear-cut resolution, nor indeed an action adventure. The author is more interested in the psychological aspects of isolation, the effect a strange environment has on human behaviour and particularly the influence the Zona might have on motivations and actions. Ronson is almost paralysed by the thought of what he might have done during those four days he cannot remember but is reluctant to consult the notebooks he compiled while in transit.

There are faint echoes here of other odd worlds, perhaps even a nod to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, there is a touch of Ballard in the detachment of many of the characters. We do not have the complete isolation that applied to the inhabitants of Beckett’s Dark Eden, nor the genetic paucity of that environment, and the existence of the duendes adds a distinctive flavour but at the end the nature of the enigma they represent is not unravelled. Perhaps Beckett intends to return to the Delta.

That might be a misstep, though. Beneath the World, A Sea is not really concerned with its backdrop. Instead it uses that backdrop to question how much a person can know of him- or her- self. While not in the highest rank – the characters indulge in too much self-examination for that – like all the best fiction it explores the nature of humanity.

The following did not appear in the published review.

Pedant’s corner:- “whose contents, she learnt, turned yellow and shrank as it dried” (as they dried.) “Their only child, wherever she went inside the house, she was surrounded by” (that second comma distorts the meaning and should be removed,) outside of (outside, just outside, no ‘of’,) “before continuing towards to the west” (either “towards” or “to”, not both,) “a posse of men and woman” (it’s possible only one woman was involved but it reads oddly,) “for hundreds of millions of year” (years,) automatons (automata,) “‘take it out in the duendes’” (on the duendes,) ambiance (ambience,) a tendency to use ‘her’ and ‘him’ where ‘she’ and ‘he’ are more grammatical, “for goodness’ sake” (if the apostrophe is there it ought to be goodness’s, best to leave it out altogether,) “‘she’ll always being able to support herself’” (always be able.) “There were also a number of” (there was a number,) “all the holes on the ground” (in the ground,) “‘a range of tawdry attractions are duly provided for them’” (a range of tawdry attractions is duly provided,) epicentre (centre,) “cheer fully” (was split over two lines without the necessary hyphen when “cheerfully” was meant,) “‘to see if Rico’s turned up If you run into him’” (needs a full stop after “up,”) “three young woman were smoking” (women,) engrained (ingrained.) “He had a mango in there He’d bought at the last village” (No capital H after “there”, ‘he’d bought’.)

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