Banner of Souls (book, Liz Williams, 2006)
From SFX, sometime around issue 140.
Fabulous far-future science fiction with a feminist twist.
Liz Williams joins a fine tradition of authors exploring futures so distant they appear totally alien, blending SF, fantasy and the supernatural. Michael Moorcock, M John Harrison, and Gene Wolfe have all trodden this road, and with this story she is becoming worthy of following in their footsteps
In a time when men are an unpleasant memory, the Martian Matriarchy struggles to control the Solar System. Particularly fractious is Earth, a flooded world, whose rebelliousness is fostered by the planet Nightshade. Dreams-of-War, a Martian warrior, is despatched to Earth to protect a newly-created infant named Lunae, whose ability to manipulate time could save Earth. But the Nightshaders are also interested, and have sent their weapon, Yskaterina; while the alien Kami, benefactors of womankind and providers of the mysterious haunt-tech too have their goals.
Williams steers clear of the intellectual vanity of other exotic-future writers. Some are so enamoured of their own prose and philosophies they let both get in the way of their stories, and in this Williams is closer to early Moorcock than later Harrison. She occasionally slips into expository dialogue when puzzles would be best left to the minds of the reader, but if your name isn’t Gene Wolfe, then that’s difficult. It also lacks the wonderfully oppressive melancholy that other writers manage to conjure, the weight of years, the half-forgotten civilisations yet to be; so Banner of Souls can at times be a little flat, as if the world it inhabits does not exist outside of the immediate experience of Williams’s characters.
There’s also the issue of Williams’s feminism. There are few men in this book, other than gene-twisted leftovers who are deserving of nothing but death. Sex is also regarded as unpleasant. In fact, only the villain of the piece does it at all. But this seems intentionally tongue-in-cheek; there is no hint of a militant creed behind what she writes, no political agenda. She’s playing with”"hat if’s…” It’s a personal fantasy, no more sinister than, say, gay author Ricardo Pinto filling his books with pretty men, but equally it means nothing, and comes across as a slightly childish, “because I can” rewriting of the world. Likewise the story loses some of its power towards the end. At first it appears to be setting up some kind of discourse on the duality of being human, but it rapidly becomes a traditional coming of age tale for Lunae.
Williams has managed to bring together a lot of intriguing SF concepts – eldritch technology, modified humans and a dying Earth – with a certain kind of feminism. It’s a fine read, and one day she may one day come close to emulating Ursula Le Guin’s success.
Did you know?
Liz Williams is the daughter of a gothic novelist and a magician and has written five other novels.