Paul McAuley on a pair of novellas by Eliane Boey
The epigraph to Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren quotes poet George Stanley in conversation: ‘You have confused the true and the real.’ It could stand at the head of the SFF fictions that form one of the core strands of the genre, from Philip K. Dick’s novels to the Matrix series of films and beyond. The pair of novellas collected in Other Minds (Dark Matter Ink, 2023), Eliane Boey’s debut volume, are excellent exemplars of this theme. Both are set partly or wholly in future iterations of Singapore, with protagonists who, haunted by past traumas, have difficulties parsing the happening world from hallucinations and virtual reality.
In ‘Carrier’, spaceship designer Li Ming Wen, emotionally damaged by personal tragedy and a career-threatening disaster, is increasingly fearful that her latest project is likewise doomed. Boey fragments the narrative into short sections that switch freely between past and present: a traumatic memory of the moments before that personal tragedy struck, which Ming Wen revisits over and again; her work on the deep space hauler Solar Endeavour and the aftermath of the structural failure which killed everyone on board; work on her new project, the luxury cruiser the Infinite Dream, ten years later, and her forced participation in the Infinite Dream’s maiden voyage, which has precipitated a hallucinatory emotional and mental crisis that evokes the ghosts and guilt of her past.
It’s as much a ghost story, then – or, at least, a haunting – as engineering-inflected space opera. There’s a little too much of the kind of melodramatic social crises caused by failures in adulting that are, to be fair, a common weakness of the genre; but her portrayal of Ming Wen’s boss, an ageing, sinister, manipulative tech bro given to unhelpful fortune-cookie koans, is much more to the point. ‘There is no unsafe solution’ he tells Ming Wen, who is struggling to provide exactly that, and after the Solar Endeavour disaster uses emotional blackmail to throw her into the grinding gears of the justice system. A more conventional narrative would arc towards his comeuppance. Instead, Boey’s clever and scrupulous jigsawing of the narrative, scattered with hints and clues, keeps the focus on Ming Wen’s mental defragging, builds towards the revelation of the true nature of her haunting, and leaves a tantalising open ending – is her last iteration of a crucial memory a clever resolution of her multiple crises, or a willing escape of a solipsistic fantasy?
‘Signal\Tracer’ is the longer of the two novellas, and relatively more conventional, a noir-inflected conspiracy set in two versions of Singapore: the real city, partly deserted and sweltering in the excessive heat of climate change, and Lion City, a VR rendering patchworked from various eras of Singapore’s storied history, where most its inhabitants choose to spend most of their time. Xi, the story’s narrator, is an agent of the Administration which controls both iterations. Much older than her VR avatar, she’s a usefully anonymous double agent in Lion City thanks to a hacker attack which bled all of her accounts dry: ‘as far as the Administration agents go, I’m the dead pixel on prime screen space in Dai Loong Square’. Like Ming Wen, she’s also in thrall to the past, maintaining an avatar of her dead mother in the VR recreation of her favourite bookshop and using her deep and detailed memories of the city to slip through obscure backdoors in its patchwork map. The price of her anonymity is dependent on her immediate superior and childhood friend, Wei, and she has no choice but to obey when Wei sets her on the trail of Sailor, the shape-shifting avatar of the leader of off-gridders ‘who believe mass, Administration-sponsored existence in Lion City is not only an invasive illusion, but a threat to the regeneration of our city and planet.’ But Sailor and their followers are not the only threat to an upcoming referendum on the future of Lion City. Xi’s investigations uncover a deeper threat to democracy: an army of zombie citizens got up from the life histories of the city’s dead and primed to sway the vote.
The usual noir tropes – a world-weary protagonist, a troubled romance, chases, double-crosses, secret identities and shoot-outs – are enlivened by a deep knowledge and love for Singapore’s diversity and history. As in the swift shuffles between the various timelines in ‘Carrier’, the reader needs to pay attention to spot transitions between the true and the real, and back again, which mirror the fluidity with which Xi flips between the two states. Boey doesn’t dwell on the tech in any great detail – it’s limited to brief mentions of opticals and haptic suits, and the fact that (unlike The Matrix) you can’t satisfy your appetite in VR restaurants. Instead, the focus is unwaveringly fixed the story’s characters; as in many noirs, the city (and the city) is one of them, sharing Xi’s doubling between ageing woman and kick-ass avatar, the true and the real. Combined with its sister novella, this richly envisioned noir mystery, with its smart and novel use and subversion of cyberpunk tropes, adds up to an accomplished, notable debut. ∎
Paul McAuley has been writing fiction since he borrowed his neighbour’s typewriter and banged out half a science-fiction novel set on Mars. Since then, he has published more than a hundred short stories and two dozen novels, as well as a Doctor Who novella and a BFI Film Classic on Terry Gilliam’s film Brazil. He also wrote a regular book review column for Interzone in the 1990s, as well as a review column for Crime Time magazine. The mass-market paperback of Beyond the Burn Line, his latest novel, is due to be published on 28 September. He lives in North London, somewhere inside a small library.
IZ Digital is Interzone’s online sister zine. Become a member of the IZD Ko-fi for a euro a month to get EPUB editions of stories. Or just buy IZ a digital coffee/tea/raktajino – it is hugely appreciated and helps a lot.
You can also start a 6-issue EPUB subscription to Interzone and get even more amazing writing delivered electronically, bimonthly.
Reader memberships and subscriptions are the lifeblood of zines like IZ Digital and Interzone – thanks for reading, and supporting!