Debris, Jo Anderton

17 May

Debris front cover

 Jo Anderton
Angry Robot, 2011
ISBN 978-0-84766-153-1

Review by Ian Sales

We readers like our marketing categories. Whether we call it a genre, a mode, or whatever, we like to know whether a piece of fiction is likely to fulfil our desires to us before we invest time and money in it. Angry Robot have used this to their advantage, putting “File under SCIENCE FICTION” or “File under FANTASY” on the back covers of the books they publish.

However, in eighty-plus years, no one has managed a satisfactory definition of science fiction. The best we can do is point at it. So it seems somewhat churlish to complain that Debris, the first book of the Veiled Worlds trilogy, is clearly labelled “SCIENCE FICTION” but does not actually read like science fiction.

Tanyana is a pion-binder and architect in the city of Movoc-under-Keeper in the nation of Varsnia. Pions are semi-sentient particles which underlie the reality of Tanyana’s world. She can see these and mentally control them in order to perform tasks, such as reshaping reality into buildings. Other pion-binders use them generate heat, or light, or transport. The entire technological base of Varsnia is based on pions. They are… magical.

While working on her latest project, a giant statue called Grandeur, mysterious red pions attack Tanyana, causing her to fall from a great height. She is badly injured, and loses her ability to see and manipulate pions. Now she can see “debris”, left behind when pions change things. Their presence hinders pions, so they must be regularly collected. This is a job for the lowest of the low. Tanyana has in her fall from Grandeur also fallen from grace. She is convinced it was all a put-up job – who was controlling those mysterious red pions? – but despite her best efforts, she does not discover who, why or even how, the conspiracy responsible for her situation has done what it did to her.

After being fitted with a “suit”, a force-field generated by bracelets, anklets, a belt and a collar bonded to Tanyana’s flesh, she goes to work with a team of debris collectors. This involves trawling the streets of the city, scooping up whatever debris they find, and sealing it in special jars. Of late there have been an unusual number of large and dangerous debris outbreaks. And Tanyana appears to have more, and finer, control over her suit – and indeed over debris – than is normal.

I can find no science in Debris; I can find no science fiction. This is no bad thing per se. The science fiction may well be hidden; it’s a common enough technique. Anderton is plainly an author who likes to keep things close to her chest: there are no answers in Debris, and the workings of its world are very much kept off-stage. There is no explanation of pions. And the explanation of debris, when it is finally revealed, seems to involve a magical being living in another dimension.

This close-handedness gives the erroneous impression not much happens in the book, but there’s still much to like. The world-building is very strong, as is the writing. The characters are perhaps drawn a little broadly, and Tanyana’s fall from grace follows a well-used parabola. There are one or two scenes which spoil the otherwise easy read from start to finish. In one, Tanyana returns to her flat to discover a pair of thugs lurking on the doorstep. She owes her landlord money so the thugs tie her up and then ransack her apartment for possessions to the value of her debt. The apartment is in a prestigious area of the city, but such behaviour seems more likely in the slum to which Tanyana moves.

That finish, however, is less a resolution than it is a slingshot into the next volume. Debris builds expectation. It only remains to be seen whether book two of the trilogy satisfies that expectation.

This review originally appeared in Interzone 237, November-December 2011

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