There’s a certain kind of book that’s almost a subgenre: the important book. The sort of book that everyone is talking about even if they hate it, the sort of book that gets reviewed everywhere and appears on award lists and gets discussed and is influential on the genre and other writers. Anathem is one of last year’s and so is Little Brother. If you’re reading this, then it’s quite likely that you’ve read them and even more likely that you’ve heard people talking about them and you plan to read them, or you very strongly plan not to read them because what you’ve heard has put you off. Sometimes, though, there will be a book that seems to me like it ought to be an important book and then for some inexplicable reason practically nobody agrees with me. It comes out, it does OK, but it doesn’t get the attention I feel it deserves. Some people like it, but it never becomes something everyone is talking about. I’ve talked about a couple of these here, Random Acts of Senseless Violence and Lady of Mazes. Susan Palwick’s Shelter is another. It came out in 2007 and I read it instantly, because I love Palwick, and I wrote about it on my livejournal and then—nothing. Nobody else was excited about it, it didn’t get nominated for anything, though I nominated it for a Hugo.
Shelter is very well worth your attention.
It’s set in a near future San Francisco, it covers twenty years of history, and it deals with a world in which a whole pile of current trends and new technology intersect in complex and fascinating ways with people’s lives. As you’d expect if you’ve read Palwick’s fantasy novels Flying in Place and The Necessary Beggar, it has solidly drawn characters and the world feels very real. What you might not expect is how well she does the science-fictional extrapolation.
There’s a major plague known as CV, “caravan virus” that mutates fast and has many strains. It kills lots of people, and the ones who survive have to cope in isolation with robot (“bot”) nursing and people only interacting with them in whole-body protective suits. Two little girls survive the virus: Meredith, rich and white, and Roberta, poor and black. They also “represent” the two extremes of selfishness and altruism—and this is a world where altruism has been medicalised and Roberta spends a lot of time in therapy and in fear of mindwipe because of her problem. Their lives are intertwined from that childhood illness through their connection to Meredith’s father, the uploaded Preston, and to Meredith’s troubled adopted son. When mental problems are routinely treated with mindwiping, what do you do if you discover someone you love is beginning to develop them? How can you ask for help when you know what sort of help you’re likely to get?
The book opens with the third narrator, House, an AI convinced it isn’t an AI. AIs are illegal in the US because they’re defined as legally persons, and therefore owning them is slavery. There’s also the AI terrorism problem… The House’s point of view is done beautifully. It feels entirely real, entirely immersive, and you can really believe the way it reasons its way through decisions. The book begins in the “present” of the story, during a very severe storm (global warming has got worse) and goes back to the earlier events that led to the world and the relationships we’re given at the beginning. Palwick directs our sympathies as a conductor directs a symphony. The twenty years of history and events we’re shown, from different points of view, build up a picture of a future that has clearly grown from our present. Every detail has second-order implications—you have bots doing the cleaning, so you have people afraid of bots, and people who think doing your own cleaning is a religious act, and you have sponge bots trying to stem a flood as a metaphor for people unable to cope.
This is also the kind of SF you can put up against Middlemarch as character study; it’s really a story about people. But the people are in situations they can only be given the science-fictional premises of the story—damaged by the isolation, worried about mindwipe, trying to fake not being altruistic, coming up with new kinds of art, trying to cope with an uploaded, ubiquitous, but not necessarily benign father.
I also liked it that Roberta was a lesbian and this was an undramatic fact—well, breaking up with her girlfriend was dramatic, but the fact of her orientation was no more significant than Meredith’s heterosexuality. It’s refreshing to have major characters with non-heteronormative sexuality without the book being about that.
One thing I found weird and unconvincing was that Gaianism had become the mainstream religion of the US, displacing Christianity which still exists as a minority thing. I don’t see Christmas celebrations being replaced by Solstice ones any time as soon as Shelter, and while I understand the purpose of the Gaian temple and how much better that worked for the story than a church would have, I didn’t see anything that would have made Christianity be all but forgotten. I kept worrying at this detail because the general level of worldbuilding and world-holding-together is so good that this niggled.
This was actually my third reading of Shelter, because I read it straight through again as soon as I’d finished it. The harrowing parts of it, and the ethical dilemma that lies at the heart of it, don’t get any easier to read. But it remains a wonderful book, a shining example of what science fiction can be when it tries.