Some years ago, I attended a French literature lecture. The specific topic was—if I remember rightly—19th century French poetry, and during the course of the hour the speaker delivered a lengthy encomium on the meaningfulness of its meaninglessness: a paean to the anomie and empty symbols of existential nihilism.
Reading Rjurik Davidson’s debut novel, Unwrapped Sky, I was ineluctably reminded of that incredibly frustrating, unforgettable hour. For Unwrapped Sky takes all the creative power of language and sets it in service of hollow symbols of dissolution and decay. It turns revolution into a directionless treatise on corrupted wills and compromised moralities: its characters are more symbols than affective individuals.
Caeli-Amur is a city decayed from a better age. The three Houses—Technis, Arbor, and Marin—control power and privilege, while those who live in their shadow eke out a bare living: industrial workers poisoned by the thaumaturgy they use to create the city’s wealth; fisherfolk enslaved; farmers exploited. Davidson furnishes his setting with staple elements of the “New Weird”: grotesqueries both organic and mechanical, industrialised magic, bizarre visions, beings described in insectile terms, body horror, drugs, the presence of the working class. The worldbuilding reaches for the liminality and transgressive force of China Miéville or Jeff VanderMeer, but never quite advances beyond a stage-set feel. The pieces never quite fit together. The logic never quite coheres, and the illogic (how does this work? How are these social systems maintained? Why? That does not make sense!) doesn’t rise to the level of nonsensical profundity necessary for me consider this novel in the light of surrealist art.
How? Why? Don’t look behind the curtain, there’s a fish in the light bulb.
This would provide less in the way of irritation, were it not for the characters’ lack of personality as individuals. Kata is a philosopher-assassin, a hired killer in debt to House Technis, resentful of the Houses but resigned to their dominance; Boris Autec is a Technis bureaucrat, risen from the factory floor, promoted past his competence and addicted to a strong drug; Maximilian is a seditionist, a thaumaturgist who wants to harness the knowledge of the drowned city of Caeli-Enas in order to overthrow the Houses and usher in a new world. Kata is tasked to infiltrate Maximilian’s group of seditionists on behalf of House Technis, while Boris is in charge of maintaining House Technis’ primacy. Sad, morally compromised people, they drift about rather aimlessly, being sad and ineffectual and morally compromised and reflecting on the state of the world and the state of their selves.
It all seems very impressed with its own profundity. That rarely turns out well.
The point at which I realised Unwrapped Sky and I were truly doomed never to get along, however, occurred on page 240 of the ARC. It is here that Boris Autec, promoted to the Directorship of House Technis, rapes Paxaea, an enslaved Siren. Boris has convinced himself that he loves Paxaea, and deluded himself into thinking she returns his feelings: in the aftermath of this act of violence,
Part of him wanted to return to the Opera, to see Paxaea, to apologize to her, to make love to her properly, to take her again and feel that exquisite pleasure. A flash of her eyes came to his mind, and he was again excited, and then immediately repelled by himself.
In the narrative, this rape acts to give definition to Boris’s character: it highlights his moral weakness and his self-delusion—traits which were already readily apparent. It is perfunctory event, and, in keeping with the rest of Unwrapped Sky, one that treats the victims of violence as objects rather than persons. Fictionalised violence—sexual violence in particular—should have some visceral power. It should, in some way, open the reader or viewer to empathy with the victims: should disturb, or connect, or shock. It shouldn’t seem a mere tawdry nothing, standing not for itself but as a symbol of some deeper social or personal malaise. It shouldn’t bore.
I am desperately tired of seeing sexual violence depicted from the point of view of the perpetrator, little fillips for our understanding of a male character; tired of female sufferers rendered mute by the fictive world. If a novel is to depict sexual violence, let it do so from the point of view of the victimised, rather than the victimiser: let it create empathy, rather than elide it.
Speaking of empathy—Unwrapped Sky elides it more than once. For in a novel whose major incidents are concerned with revolution, with industrial action, with the overthrow of an unjust order, the working class never rise into the foreground. Rather, they become a background mass, never shown from their own point of view but always from that of others: Boris, who has risen to power; Kata, the hired killer; and Maximilian, the convinced seditionist whose background seems firmly landed gentry or bourgeoisie. Even the terms in which opposition to the Houses is conceived, within the body of the narrative—“sedition,” “seditionism”—are set apart from the language of urban resistance: the workers are not actors but rather objects in other players’ dramas.
For all its characters’ talk of power and change, Unwrapped Sky has very little fire in its belly, very little passion. It retreats again and again from the edge of pointed relevance into hollow symbols, confused images; banal commonplaces uttered with an air of profundity. Davidson falls short of the technical skill that could render his narrative compelling in the absence of vivid characterisation and a strong through-line, and his prose lacks the beauty that would make his abstractions attractive regardless.
Unwrapped Sky is a novel with a great deal of potential, most of which it squanders. In the final estimation, it attains the kind of mediocrity that makes you wistful for the novel it could have been.
Which is a pity, because it has a really lovely cover.
Unwrapped Sky is available April 15th from Tor Books.