We miss so much when the assumptions we attach to words are all we snatch

occupy-me-by-tricia-sullivanOccupy Me
by Tricia Sullivan

This is a very strange genre-crossing mindbender of a novel. I thoroughly enjoyed it even though at times I had no idea what was going on.

The plot is difficult to explain. The tale is narrated by Pearl, who wakes up in a fridge in a junkyard with little knowledge of who she is, or indeed what. She has the appearance of a middle-aged tall muscular black woman, but she also has wings in a higher dimension and a strength far beyond human. She might be an angel. In alternate chapters she directly addresses a Dr Kisi Sorle, whose story initially seems to be separate from hers, though they inevitably come together.

Dr Sorle has been experiencing blackouts, after one of which he finds himself in possession of a briefcase. When he arrives at work, where he provides end-of-life care for a billionaire businessman Austen Stevens, whose corporation destroyed his home country, he finds his body taken over again, but this time he remains aware of the other man controlling him. The controlling entity opens the briefcase and the dying Stevens disappears inside it.

“The act of pushing seemed to activate something in me. In between the electrical signals of the man’s nervous system I found a constellation of apertures – thousands of them. I inserted my consciousness in between these pulses like a drummer inserts a syncopated beat, like a swimmer reaches down a toe to feel the bottom. There was no bottom. In between the beats of his electrical activity there was a great stillness, there was a long, lightless ocean, and it was exerting a faint but perceptible force on me. I could fall so easily.”

Thus begins a part-thriller, part futuristic sci-fi, part literary exploration of identity and morality. There’s time travel, artificial intelligence, dinosaurs and an awesome Scottish vet called Alison. What is the Resistance? Where is Pearl’s missing wave launcher? Also, the writing is beautiful; I highlighted dozens of sections. And the non-SF elements are notably diverse. Both main characters are black and one is gay. Dr Sorle’s back-story is that of a developing country thrown into political chaos by a corporation out to steal its rich natural resources.

An awful lot of plot is packed into a relatively short novel but there is still room for hard SF exposition and some great characterisation (though some characters remain inscrutable, none are two-dimensional). Pearl is at times complex, at times childlike in her simplicity. She falls in love easily and wants to help everyone she meets. She is also driven to reclaim the missing part of herself even if it endangers the future, or rents an irreparable hole to the past.

“I heard her breath and the clacking of her spit and the sliding of her tongue, the echoing of breath in throat and against teeth. I knew where the words began and ended because I speak the language, every language, but if you didn’t know the language then all the images and histories and truths and fictions in her words would be just a stream of tones bounded by different types of clacking and changes in volume. She was invisible, and when her mouth was against my ear I felt her breath on my skin and the soft ticks and slipperings of consonants go into my soul like sea foam…I hear her swallow in between utterances, and I heard her breathe, and we miss so much when the assumptions we attach to words are all we snatch.”

However, this short novel took me two weeks to read (slow for me) because at times I struggled to keep track of what was happening. There were sections I just had to accept reading without truly understanding. The experience reminded me a lot of reading William Gibson’s Neuromancer.

Sullivan says herself on her blog that she considers this by far her best work to date, but she has previously won the Arthur C Clarke Award so I might look back at that novel at least, and I’ll certainly keep an eye on her future works.

“That’s why I’m about the heavy lifting. Because that’s what love is…It’s pulling back from the slippery slope of war with every microgram of self-mastery you can scrape up from the dirty leftovers of anger. Love is sweat. Love happens in the small hours, when you’re half-dead with exhaustion…It’s chanting the same nonsense words over and over because that’s what it takes to cross the bridge at this terrible moment. Love is small change that you really needed, but you gave it away.”

Published 2016 by Gollancz.

Source: Bought direct from the publisher.

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