|Submitted by Karen Burnham |
(Nov 29, 2006)
If one of the aspects of post-modernism is the rejection of a central core of identity usually seen in modern narration, then “Vellum” is a decidedly post-modern novel. There is no clear central narrative and no fixed narrator. The story-telling is almost completely non-linear. In a daring structural choice, where there is a first person narrator it is not always the same person narrating, sometimes it isn’t even in the same universe. And yet, despite all the tricks and the change-ups and the diversions, the story contained in “Vellum” is compelling and brilliant.
The Vellum of the title is nothing less than the entire fabric of reality, containing all possible universes within it. The story of the novel floats across many different regions of the Vellum, seemingly without rhyme or reason. As many different types of stories are told as there are different universes. Hal Duncan relies on our familiarity with different classic narratives of fantasy and science fiction to lightly sketch a story, filling in some small piece of our understanding of the over-arching story or the characters, before moving on to something completely different. Thus in the Prologue we are introduced to the sort of genealogical quest-for-a-macguffin story that we’re all familiar with where a young man finally solves all the puzzles to find a legendary book that his crazy grandfather told him about, while in high-frequency flashbacks we’re introduced to some backstory. Then in Chapter One we then find ourselves in the midst of the story of Inanna, the Sumerian goddess, told in a sort of chant/prose poem. This ain’t your traditional fantasy.
Stories are told from different perspectives across many universes. Inanna enters the kingdom of the dead/Anna mourns for her brother killed in World War One/Phreedom searches for her unkin brother in North Carolina in 2017. The character of Jack propagates through the stories of the other characters, as does Puck/Thomas Messenger. In a particularly heart-rending passage Puck, a college-age satyr with hooves and horns is crucified on a barbed-wire fence by other-worldly gay-bashers. So that we can’t look away or avoid complicity, Matthew Shepard is later crucified on a fence in Wyoming by our own gay-bashers. Thus Duncan anchors the mythic strands of the narratives back to our own brutal reality. The narrative points out: “Geographical proximity doesn’t matter when it comes to traveling through the Vellum; it’s morphological proximity that counts. Congruity.”
The story itself seems to be about a war between different factions of angels/unkin/otherworldly immortal beings. They don’t correspond neatly to the Good/Evil factions usually found in Wars in Heaven. However, they are trying to get all the unaffiliated unkin to take sides, and they’re tracking them throughout time and throughout the Vellum to make them sign on. Most of our heroes are trying to stay independent, taking a stand by refusing to take sides. This is a theme seen more and more in speculative fiction in recent years, in everything from Babylon 5 to John C. Wright’s “War of the Dreaming” sequence. Instead of choosing between two previously-defined sides, heroes are making their own way through these stories.
The story reminded me very much of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series of graphic novels. The use of mythic stories to tell new stories, the grounding in the traditional stories that readers are probably already familiar with, a somewhat punk attitude towards traditional epic narratives. “Vellum” is even darker than that series, with less impish humor and fewer leavening moments of lightness. A significant sequence of scenes follows Seamus Finnian through trench warfare in WWI and his complete psychological breakdown compounded by his newly immortal nature and the loss of all his comrades. It then follows him to the bloody put-down of a labor riot in Glasgow in the 1920s, later known as “Bloody Friday.” This is not the stuff of fairy tales, this is the stuff of nightmares. Speaking of nightmares, don’t forget your Lovecraft. One story is told mostly in the form of email exchanges with email@example.com.
This is exactly as important a debut novel as you’ve heard it is. It takes many traditions of epic fantasy and subverts them, injecting an almost cyberpunk (there are nanites!)/New Weird attitude into them (although without any steampunk-style magic). This is really only the start of the story, amazingly enough. The next volume, “Ink,” should be coming out in 2007. With his endlessly versatile array of narrative voices and techniques, Hal Duncan has leaped into the top levels of English and Scottish authors bringing whole new imaginings to science fiction and fantasy.