Sep 20 2012 2:00pm

Where are We Going and Why? Alison Sinclair’s Cavalcade

Alison Sinclair says that Cavalcade (1998) was the result of thinking about alien abductions and wondering what would happen if the aliens asked for volunteers. An alien spaceship comes into the solar system. It doesn't respond to attempts to contact it except for broadcasting a message that it's going on a one way trip and anyone who wants to join it should be within ten metres of a body of water on a specific date. The book begins with everyone who showed up finding themselves on the ship, with their electronics dead but everything else they brought with them working. They are a strange mixture of people, and they are confronted with the mystery of an alien ship with no aliens and no explanations.

It's harder to imagine deciding not to go, and I'd be very interested in the story of how Earth's history went forward from then on, knowing there were aliens and there had been one alien visit and that was probably it.

The story we have is the story of the people who went, from a whole set of points of view—the NASA scientist, the medical researcher, the pregnant teenager, the psychopath on the run. Through them we meet all kinds of other people—the women who had read Tiptree and taken it very seriously, the army group, the disaster relief organizer, the octogenarian WWII resistance fighter. There are lots of great female characters here, especially Hathaway the pregnant teenager, whose sections really glow. We're told there are people from all over the planet but they have been put together by language, and those we follow are all Americans. Two of our point of view characters are mixed race. All of them have secrets.

Sinclair gives us these people, establishes them, and gives them and us a mystery, the ship, how it works, where it's going, why, what's going on, the absentee aliens, communication. Communication is the theme of the novel, communication with the ship, with the aliens, and between people. There's a plague, a war, love, death, lots of events, but the hope of resolution of the mysteries is what keeps you reading, and the resolutions are well done—I am always disappointed with books where there's a great set up and the revelation leaves you thinking “Is that all?” This isn't the case here.

I always consider my first re-read of a book the completion of my reading process. The first time through Cavalcade I was so wrapped up in wanting to know what happened that I found myself reading faster and faster. This time I had time to linger and enjoy the characters and the way in which they worked things out—and how very differently they do it, with logic versus intuition. It's thought provoking in a lot of ways—not just whether we'd go when we don't know where or why, but the ethics of how people act to each other and the fundamental question of what justice is in complex situations. It's a terrific book and a pleasure to read.

Cavalcade reminds me a little of Butler's Xenogenesis (Lilith's Brood) books, and a little of Farmer's Riverworld books. It's quite different from either, but it falls into the same conceptual space. It was nominated for the Clarke Award but it never had a U.S. edition and it's difficult to find. I'm surprised nobody picked this up because it's the kind of intelligent interesting SF we want to be reading and thinking about.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently the Nebula winning Among Others. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

Mike G.
1. Mike G.
Sounds like a fascinating book... Let's hope it gets e-published soon!

BTW, the signature block needs updating. It's missing something between "Nebula" and "winning", like "and Hugo" :)
Chris Gouker
2. gouker
Thanks for this review! The book sounds great. I just ordered a used copy on Amazon since there wasn't a new copy available :-/
Jo Walton
3. bluejo
Mike: I actually wrote this post before. I have updated the sig block on the posts I've written since I've been home.
Mike G.
4. ClintACK
Sounds excellent -- I went right to Amazon and... couldn't find it.

Gee, if only there were an American publishing house interested in putting this book out in e-book format in this country... *nudge* *nudge*
Mike G.
5. RReader
Well, I got it, and read it (and will send it to whomever on the thread asks first). I spent the first half of the book telling everybody I knew that we had (well, Jo had) a real find, a new first class author who had the literary chops, the science, the social understanding ...

I spent the second half of the book cussing.

Everything Jo said was true ... but the social setup and politics was one great big trap ... Sinclair magnificently set up all kinds of alternative social arrangements, from traditional technocrats/corporate pols to anarchists to feminist separatists, with a great early exploration of how they might interact in a space where the board wasn't skewed.

Then she set everyone but the traditionalists up only to knock them down. The anarchists were steely eyed torturers and soulless manipulators, the feminist separatists impractical idealists, and nobody had it right but the traditional pols and military, which despite their crimes were excused because they ... well, because they were who they were. Because the author could.

I know that's no big deal in most books ... taken for granted really, but the author did such a good job of setting up the possibilities that the descent into reflex tropes was jolting, and disappointing. It could have been such a good book. If she had only let go of ... well, the need to have good guys and bad guys for one thing.

To be fair, the book was written in the late 1990's, before the recent collapses and revelations about where the traditional forms were leading us. But it still grates ... promise unfulfilled.

There's a lot good about this book, even great, but the letdown was as big as the buildup.
Jo Walton
6. bluejo
RReader: I don't think that was the case -- it's Hathaway and Stephen who were doing the right thing and actually getting through to the ship.
Mark Lawrence
7. incurablyGeek
I bought a used copy and consumed it in the space of a few nights.

I thought the story played out realistically. The special forces team always thought they were going to go home and that motivated their actions. I found the scene in the core where they responded to Stephen's actions chilling and what happened in the end with the team lead poetic justice.

It is an interesting premise and I though Sinclair acquitted herself well through it.
Mike G.
8. Yvonne M Rowse
I have this book in hardback and really enjoyed it although I preferred her two earlier SF books (Legacies & Blueheart). She seems to be writing fantasy now. Maybe I'll give them a go. I couldn't understand why she never made it to greater fame & fortune in the SF world.
Nancy Lebovitz
9. NancyLebovitz
Would anyone care to take a crack at how many people would be near salt water by accident on the relevant night?

I agree that Hathaway was portrayed as the person who's most nearly right about things because she has good instincts and a good mind rather than fitting into anyone's ideological system.

I liked it because it was old-fashioned science fiction which played to a sense of wonder and it didn't have either a romance or a mystery plot included.

I do feel as though the feminists were somewhat set up, though I suppose that the group who made that particular mistake would have to either be feminists or some sort of environmentalists.

I believe it was an idiot plot, though it took me an hour after finishing reading it to realize the problem. Vs gur nyvraf pbhyq tvir gur naabhaprzrag bs jurer gb trg cvpxrq hc, gura gurl pbhyq fnl jung crbcyr arrqrq gb qb gb yvir jryy jvgu gur fuvc.
Mike G.
10. Adam Greene
I was going to email you, but the comments section will have to suffice. I discovered your Tor posts a couple months ago and went back and read a ton. Reading the posts, how much you enjoy sf and your depth of sf knowledge, inspires me. There are many new books on my reading list because of you, including Cavalcade by Sinclair. Sending your
Best science fiction by women written 2001-2010 post to my girlfriend, not a typical sf reader, lead to her loading our bookshelves with the books mentioned. Thank you, Jo Walton.
scott hhhhhhhhh
11. wsp_scott
Thanks for another great book suggestion, I finished this last night and really enjoyed it. I got a copy off of Abebooks for a couple of bucks, well worth it.

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