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Debris by Jo Anderton

Debris by Jo Anderton, The Veiled Worlds I (Angry Robot, 2011) starts off like a rocket. Albeit we’re in familiar territory with a strong female protagonist experiencing a disaster and then recovering, there’s something really pleasing about the initial set-up. We’re pitched into a dystopian world with a powerful and unaccountable elite in control of Varsnia. These people will casually blight a career or kill without compunction if it’s felt expedient. Although there are faint trappings of a judicial system, access is strictly controlled and the results of adjudications only released in redacted form. The justification for this oppression is the usual excuse of an external enemy. While there may not be Orwellian counterespionage policing with fifth-columnists publicly rounded up for interrogation, you have the sense there’s a pervasive atmosphere of repression and fear. Continuing in familiar territory, this powerful elite has accumulated vast wealth and lives in accommodation matching their status while those at the bottom of the heap live in old, unmodernised buildings in slum quarters.

 

The ability that makes this society work is a variation on bending as in Avatar: The Last Airbender. Most humans in this world have developed a power to manipulate matter. At the bottom end of the ability scale, people see something of the atomic structure of the world and can perform simple tasks equivalent to turning an on/off switch. At the top end of the scale, we have people who approach reality warping powers, able to pull matter apart and rebuild it into new permanent forms. These forms may be static like a major civic building or piece of artwork, or it can be a machine of some kind. This ability has transformed the world at a superficial level. There’s no clear timeline given so this was either a pre-technological society, exploiting steam and gas for power, or more likely given the other technology that shows up later, it’s one of these post-apocalypse scenarios in which a world more advanced than ours has fallen into a chaos during which most of the old technology was lost. It’s interesting to compare this set-up with The Light Ages by Ian R MacLeod which has conventional technological development stall when Victorian miners discover deposits of aether, a magical form of energy. Jo Anderton also has Dickensian overtones in her descriptions of crumbling infrastructures and decrepit factories. Her society has also stalled in a pre-democratic, semi-feudal model where the elite has taken command of the key bending resources and largely diverts this work to improving the quality of life for the wealthy with a few sops for the middle classes.

 

We start off with our heroine, Tanyana, who’s in the process of constructing the ironically named statue Grandeur. This is intended as an enduring symbol of Varsnia’s contribution to the world. This massive structure is, of course, an exercise in hubris both national and personal. Sadly, Tanyana finds her work sabotaged. She and her unfinished statue are literally cast down. This makes Vansia look bad and justifies Tanyana’s fall from grace. When she recovers consciousness, she finds herself being fitted with an unfamiliar “machine”. Passing quickly on, she’s then despatched into the outer suburbs to join a crew of debris collectors. We now learn bending is a technology or applied magic that seeks its own equilibrium. Think yin and yang. For all the positive use of the bending, there’s a byproduct. Leave too much of this debris lying around and you push the overall system out of balance. Surprisingly, the technology created with the bending starts to malfunction. It was at this point I began to feel the initial rocket start falter.

Jo Anderton showing the latest human/machine interface around her neck

 

The need for refuse collectors would have been obvious from the start yet only a tiny minority of the citizens can see this debris, let alone pick it up and carry it away. You cannot imagine a society setting off to build a future on bending without taking every possible precaution on the rubbish front. Frankly, with the numbers of those with the necessary skills in such short supply, why do they not command higher status and pay to match? At the very least, this is like the fire brigade which must monitor the suburbs to remove accumulations before they can become a danger. Should there be a sudden imbalance, these dedicated people must rush to the scene and literally save the community from a fate worse than death given all their technology would cease to work. It makes absolutely no sense these indispensable workers would be the equivalent of dalits who are considered untouchable because their traditional work is cleaning out the latrines and sewers.

 

Then we slowly realise all the characters in this book come without any sense of history. Being old, an oral history was passed down to me by my parents and grandparents. Through this, I literally remember what it was like during the late Victorian and Edwardian periods before I was born. I have a sense of how we came to be what we are today. Yet there’s nothing in this first-person narrative to really explain how this magical technology got started, nor who all the different groups are in this society. Everyone would know how the world works. Yet our heroine seems to have no understanding of how to navigate through the bureaucracy, nor how power is deployed. No-one around her seems to understand how the tribunal system works nor how people can suddenly find themselves demoted from a good job to the equivalent of a goatherd in the Siberian wastes. We are left to feel everyone’s surprise as the dystopian regime rolls out each new predictable oppressive mechanism.

 

Then we come to the technology of the suit with which the collectors are fitted. There’s nothing else even remotely comparable seen in this city. If this is a stalled Victorian society, how did scientists come to develop something this sophisticated? If this is a survivor technology from a previous age, why is there nothing else that seems to match this level of cyborg transformation? Even though this level of integration seems only possible with those who have the genes for high-powered atomic manipulation, there are enough of these people to benefit from the obvious advantages — perhaps this is all a military secret. Then there are the human/machine interfaces, wireless communication systems and computerised display units associated with suit operation. In this, I’m not counting what may appear to be an electronic money system — pun intended. That appears to be one of the magic machines, only accessible to the atomic-blind through an overlaid display. It’s the uniqueness of the suit’s apparently conventional technology that’s so hard to accept in this context. I have the same problems with the survival of strange books and the completely unexplained nature of the underground movement that rears its head. When we get into the final section of this novel and come to a slight better understanding of how modified and unmodified humans may be able to interface with other realities, the construction of the immediate world gets even less coherent. Indeed, it may be better to stop thinking of this as a science fiction novel and to label it fantasy.

 

From all this, you will understand a degree of frustration on my part. What began so well almost completely falls to pieces as we go through the middle section. The ending is decidedly weak and not a little incomprehensible given what has gone before. Normally, I would not care and simply throw this away. But whatever the faults in the plotting, Jo Anderton writes very well. She has a strong sense of character and the descriptions of the cityscape are impressive. So rather than rush to a definitive conclusion, I will wait for the sequel. It’s possible she has some overarching explanation that will make sense of this first volume. If so, I will rate this as a duology and give it a more positive recommendation. For those who want to buy Debris and then travel in hope, the sequel is called Suited.

 

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

 

For the record, Debris has been nominated in the 2012 Ditmar ballot for Best Novel.

 

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  1. March 21, 2012 at 1:22 pm

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