Review by Ian Sales
Osaji lives on Ben, a world much like the moon Europa, with a world-ocean beneath a thick covering of ice. Humans have colonised Ben, but only on the floor of the Saltese Sea in underwater cities, or travelling about in arks which drift freely from place to place. After one such tour aboard the ark Cormorin, Osaji leaves the crew at Golconda – because she cares for her grandmother, who the others aboard the ark consider a liability because she is suffering from senile dementia. Because Osaji has taken responsibility for the care of her grandmother, her options are severely limited. Her sister will put her up, but not for long as she doesn’t want the burden of their grandparent. So Osaji signs aboard another ark, Divernon, but neglects to mention she will be accompanied…
But while settling aboard, and before Divernon’s other crew members appear, a seaquake strikes Golconda and causes great damage. Divernon breaks its mooring, and is unable to return to the city, unable to control its flight from the city. Osaji is not alone, however. Just before Divernon broke free, she managed to rescue an offworld visitor to Ben, Jack. Together, they find themselves adrift in Ben’s waters, propelled by swift currents from the Saltese Sea out into the greater ocean of the world… Where they are witness to strange sights unsuspected by the Bennites.
The story of Carolyn Ives Gilman’s novella Arkfall in part apes the journey Divernon takes in the outer ocean. There is no real direction to it, more of a Vernian surrender to fate and the ocean currents. For a genre which relies so heavily on plot and its consequent narrative impetus, it makes Arkfall a leisurely read. But that doesn’t work against it because Osaji is a wonderfully-drawn character, and the world-building is superb.
It’s not simply that the humans of Ben live on the floor of a black ocean, or that the arks are mostly biological technology. But also Ben’s society is fervently cooperative, and its members are almost pathologically self-effacing:
Osaji looked down. “Your applicant enjoys wet.” She could not say she was good at it – that would seem unhumble – but she was. “Her profile is listed in the registry.” (p 20)
Jack the offworlder, however, is a more familiar character. He is in most respects like a present-day American – indeed, abrasively so:
“The entire goddamned culture is based on passive aggression. Don’t you all know this is a frontier? Where’s your initiative, your self-reliance? Where are your new horizons? I’ve never seen such an insular, myopic, conformist, small-minded bunch of people in my life. This planet is a small town preserved in formaldehyde.” (p 13)
The irony, of course, is that the journey Osaji and Jack subsequently take has nothing to do with initiative or self-reliance. It was an accident, the result of something over which they had no control. Nor could they control it any point, since the arks have no propulsion system. Happily, the two reach an accommodation, and it is their shared sense of wonder which allows them to cooperate (though Jack has to make one or two concessions first). Jack also proves to be the first person to not only accepts Osaji’s grandmother but also manage to get through to her.
Chief among Osaji and Jack’s discoveries is an alien city, deep in a gulf in a part of the ocean never before visited by humans. Another irony: Jack railed against the Bennites’ lack of curiosity and here was a wonder on their very doorstep, something they should have found long before:
The thought of monstrous rock shapes below her, hidden since the beginning of eternity, filled her with dread. She was about to suggest that they had come far enough and should cut the cable when Jack said, “What’s that?” … They were surrounded by glass towers. Not solid glass, but intricate meshworks of spun filaments that glinted silver and azure in the beam of Osaji’s light. As the searchlight touched the nearest ones, they seemed to ignite in a cascade, as if conducting the light from one glass strand to the next, till the entire landscape around them glowed. (p 55)
But the Bennites’ priorities are not Jack’s – as is personified by Osaji and the responsibility she has taken for the care of her grandmother. The alien city will still be there should they return, yet for the Bennites to rush out and explore would have been to leave vulnerable those incapable of keeping up, those who need the care of others. It is in the nature of truly civilised societies that the succour and safety of its members always comes first. The Bennites – Osaji – are more civilised than Jack… and what exactly have they lost by taking their time to explore their world?
Arkfall first appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in 2008, and was shortlisted for the 2010 Nebula Award for Best Novella. I’m not sure how, given that it was published two years previously. I understand works were eligible for two years for many years, but I had thought that rule changed before the 2010 Nebula Awards. No matter. Arkfall is definitely worth reading. Recommended.