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May 2003
© 2003 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
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Sister Alice by `Robert Reed
Orbit, UK PPBK: ISBN 184149125X PubDate: May 2003
Review by John Berlyne

408 pages List price £6.99
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Robert Reed's novel Marrow was reportedly one of Orbit's biggest selling paperback titles of last year and, no doubt, it will be hoped that Sister Alice can repeat this success. Originally published in a serialized form, Sister Alice appeared Asimov's SF Magazine in five parts over a seven year period and I do find myself wondering if Reed might have written a different kind of story had he sat down and approached this as a stand alone novel. By the same token, I guess I should question whether I might have gained a different impression of this story has I absorbed it over that seven year period and not over the two or three days it took me to get through it.

Sister Alice is a novel about scale and about scope. "Epic" doesn't quite cover it. Indeed the stretches of time and space that Reed's story encompasses actually make my brain hurt to try and imagine them!

Ten-million years hence, a thousand people (and their cloned offspring) have been selected by humanity to (somehow) receive god-like powers that will ensure a lasting peace. The theory here is that with humankind ever expanding, territory and the need for living space is a major factor in provoking conflict. With these powers conferred upon these responsible and trustworthy folk, this problem can be solved - new planets can be terraformed, even created, and everyone can live happily side by side – albeit still light years away from each other! For millennia this plan works perfectly and the families of the one thousand become the cogs around which society turns. Each family has a function - the Nuyens are diplomats and politicians, the Sanchexes, warriors and the Chamberlain's are the builders, the terraformers. There are others, but it is these three that are most relevant to our story.

Over these vast tracts of time, social patterns have evolved within each family, the young (cloned) generation play war games in the snowy fields surrounding the mansions and the young adults fuck their way around the galaxy - this is much like our present day society I suppose, except that a childhood in this set-up lasts thousands of years. Ord, the youngest Chamberlain is the baby of the family. At only a few thousand years old, he is still running around in the god-like equivalent of shorts. But returning to the mansion after uncounted millennia comes Sister Alice, one of the most ancient Chamberlain's. Her arrival causes upheaval, all the more problematic for the mystery that surrounds it. She will not speak to anyone nor even explain her presence, instead hiding herself away in the oldest and darkest park of the house. From there she summons the baby, Ord, for she will speak only to him, and it begins to become clear that something cataclysmic has taken place. A terraforming experiment gone wrong, so wrong that billions will inevitably die. Whether an accident or criminal negligence, this grave occurrence will shatter the peace and destroy the families. And the poor baby Ord, young and innocent, is drawn into a universe of gods gone rogue and terrible consequences. Poor kid! He only has a few million years to grow up!

This is a big plot - actually let me rephrase that - this is BIG plot! Not in terms of page length or even cast of characters, but as I mentioned above, scale and scope. Within this intriguing and visionary (as well as visual) imagining of humanity’s future are some fascinating notions, explored as only science fiction can explore them. One that struck me particularly was Reed's exploration of the voyeurism of death - as countless billions expire in the conflagration caused by Alice’s crime, countless billions more sit in front of broadcast screens that cover each planetary demise. It is a chilling and uncomfortable notion, particularly coming straight after the "liberation" of Iraq, very much a TV war.

There is no faulting Reed's capacity for grand imaginings here - his concepts of dimension are not restricted to the recognized three. Indeed the story spans inconceivable distances and takes place in realms where mere physicality is immaterial (literally) and at speeds that are often impossible to register. Flesh is merely one state in which these characters exist, matter something to be manipulated and manipulations themselves, matters of titanic proportions. Reality here is very elastic.

But a story such as this asks a lot of the reader. Scale and scope are all very well, but we need some frame of reference, some coherency to the panoramic scenes played out before us. I have read and enjoyed the great epic SF of other recent writers such as Alastair Reynolds, Iain M. Banks and Stephen Baxter and always, within their widescreen visions, I have been able to keep up - but Reed lost me more than once in Sister Alice - perhaps my failing, but equally, perhaps his. The zigzag, breakneck and relentless pace of Sister Alice moves so quickly and in such unexpected and unexplained directions that it plays more often as a light-show than a novel. I'm thinking here of those scenes in movies such as Kubrick's 2001 or the first Star Trek film where we find ourselves - though a particular character POV - hurtling through a series of coloured lights. They whiz and streak past us, pretty and often startling patterns registering on our retinas, and for the viewer, the impression left is without doubt an exhilarating one. But Sister Alice seemed to me a whole movies worth of these flashes and streaks.

Reed displays a great, sweeping and certainly visionary imagination here, but ultimately the sheer strangeness of the concepts at work, seemed too far removed for me to comfortably grasp. Fascinating, but remote.

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