This review and the following interview are a year late, because the author had to flee her home in Australia last year as the firestorm raged across the landscape. The publisher also had to flee.
Then came Covid.
But they are trying to recover their lives, including launching this absorbing, remarkable book at last.
Poison and Light, by Gillian Polack
Here’s the blurb for the book:
Renowned artist Grania, famed as a painter of light, arrives in a sleek space ship from Lost Earth, ready to embrace New Ceres and its New Enlightenment in its entirety – its 18th century set up, its coffee houses, its gossipy salons, and its obsession with a low-level approach to tech . . . But is she really ready for its cutthroat society, its strange food issues or for Livia? Livia who toys with lives on a whim, and will stop at nothing to realize her dream society.
When Grania marries Dal and sets up her own political salons the stage is set for a battle of wills and poisonous chaos ensues.
From the pen of Dr Gillian Polack comes a wild romp through a brand new world where everything old is new again. It will have you turning every page as quickly as you can read it.
It’s always difficult to pen a review without raising a howl from those who insist on reading reviews before they look at the book, but get offended if they encounter a whiff of spoiler. The only way around that I’ve ever been able to figure is to discuss my reaction to the book, while skirting mention of any incidents that led to the reaction.
First of all, I found it impossible to predict. I was intrigued from the gitgo by the combination of science fiction and Enlightenment-era culture and custom, especially as I know that the author is a historian, and so hasn’t osmosed her sense of history from a few historical novels.
We are not speaking of the Enlightenment of Denis Diderot and the Encylopedists, who rejoiced in the people’s power to spread knowledge. This is pre-Revolutionary Enlightenment, with its imposed sense of order, with nobility at the top, the rule of law favoring them.
The few, brief science fictional elements heighten the awareness of this particular brand of Enlightenment thinking by contrast. This is not a book of razzle-dazzle futuristic math and alien biology or nano-sophisticated ship design. It’s an sfnal look at how we deliberately and consciously rewrite the past to work the way we want it.
Or think we want it.
We learn early on that Earth has had some grim recent history, and we discover more as the story progresses. There are a couple of visits to the spaceport, otherwise the focus stays on New Ceres, the planet where it is against the law to introduce post-Enlightenment tech.
The thing is, as Grania begins to discover, who makes the laws, and enforces them, matters.
I was intrigued by everything in the book: discussions of, and reactions to, art; gender observations, class observations, and above all, the power plays, especially between women. Because make no mistake, women are very important in this society, while still maintaining the Enlightenment social fabric.
Time to back away from the story itself and make an observation about the author and her work. If there is a single shared characteristic in her storytelling, I’d say it’s the internal narrative. As I observed in the short story collection she released not long ago, Polack writes fewer scenes, opting for character immersion, the narrative voice slipping in and out of free indirect discourse.
Complex stories will speak differently to different readers. Polack’s strength is her ability to immerse the reader in the interior landscape of the mind, with all its strange shapes and symbols, and often invisible but relentless boundaries. And what can be stranger than a futuristic society that, for whatever reason, opts for a reenactment of the Enlightenment era?
Because I got to read an advance copy, I used the opportunity to invite the author to respond to a few questions in interview format.
ME: Talk a little about the origin of this idea, melding sf and a recreation of the Enlightenment.
GP: One of the things I research as an historian is how we play with history and how we dream about history and how we use history to solve problems. (Bear with me – I’m not going into an academic spiel here.) Some years ago, I was researching how writers use history in fiction. This was published as History and Fiction: Writers, their Research, Worlds and Stories in 2016, which means I don’t need to go into that side of things here.
While I was researching, I wondered about how we all dream about a perfect place and a perfect time. Some of us have images of knights and some of being angry knitters during the French Revolution. What would it be like if a whole world had the power to turn its back on a galaxy and to say “We don’t like you. We’re going back to the eighteenth century”? That was the world of Poison and Light.
Why the eighteenth century? When I watch TV or movies or read books I see the eighteenth century that other people adore. It’s not the real century. It’s simpler and more dramatic. I thought that it would be so much fun to take these dreams and create a society from them. Not from the real history (although I studied it as an undergraduate). From the real way we dream and write about history. Some people would see the eighteenth century as the time for secret societies and ruling through poisoning and danger. Other fermented revolution. Others lived and believed in the Enlightenment. And more. So much more. I couldn’t put it all in, but I could develop a society and see what would happen.
ME: New Ceres is about order, so how did they come to permit, or allow, highwaymen? The entire concept was unexpected!
GP: Whenever someone has a new idea on New Ceres or they want to change things, they find models from the eighteenth century. It’s much easier for News Ceres’ legal system to judge things that weren’t from the eighteenth century than it is for it to judge things that were illegal but terribly popular in the eighteenth century.
This isn’t as complicated as it sounds. Compare the food at the Outback Steakhouse with actual food in Australia. They’re not the same. Outback Steakhouse gives a very accurate sense of what Australia felt like to US diners when it was first established. That’s the sort of relationship with history that New Ceres has. All the cool things. And one of the cool things was highwaymen.
There are people on New Ceres who want the perfect order they dream of, where they rule. The eighteenth century is their tool for acheiving this and in some ways it’s a handy way. It has courts and it has social order and it has controlled violence. The thing is, the actual eighteen century also had highwaymen.
Bigtime. So many highwaymen.
New Ceres’ own rules made it hard to get rid of something that was so genuinely from the actual historical period. To make it worse, highwaymen could be popular heroes. John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (where Brecht’s Macheath came from) was all about highwaymen. Dick Turpin may not have had a long life, but he had such an enormous popularity.
I regard the highwaymen in my novel as failures because they’re copying the wrong things for the wrong reasons, but that’s how some people use history. Those people have an idea and they say “What historical model can I use?” Mr F (Printer to the Nobility) is much cleverer and more historically astute, and I cannot imagine him ever becoming a highwayman.
ME: Oh, Spectator is full of essays opining the low public taste for thieves and highwaymen. And there were some famous ones, for various reasons. Few ended well.
GP: This is the sort of thing that would sneak into a reinvented past once it is brought fully to life. I’ve seen it happen when a group of people embed themselves deep in a game: the game suddenly produces things that all the players know, but hadn’t realised belonged in this game, today.
With a whole society bringing history to life, there have to be systems to keep things under control. This is the order you were seeing. They’re partly systems that belong to the eighteenth century and partly how the powers-that-be maintain control on a world that’s not fully terraformed.
No matter how far the rulers push this sense of order and class, they can’t stop humans being human. That means some ideas and some bits of the eighteenth century appear that challenge that view of teh period but are still from our history. It’s how people find ways to live in the society and to handle the problems that the scoiety carries. Highwaymen aren’t the only thing that fit this.
ME: This notion of recreating a society as one wishes, rather than the historical fact, is intriguing, but even moreso, when it’s clear that the humans who live there . . . let’s say, to stay spoiler free, exist in a tension between life as (they think) it ought to be, and how humans really human. I found that one of the chief draws of this story.
GP: It’s one of the big ideas behind the story. How we change history to make it our own, without realising it. How we live those changes, given an opportunity. How what we do with history tells us about ourselves. The eighteenth cnetury in space starts off as a bit of fun, but it becomes real and personal.
That’s why this isn’t quite the usual novel set in the eighteenth century and it’s how it’s different to other space opera: it’s about how we bring our dreams to life and what happens if a whole society tries to do that.
Not everyone has the same dream…
ME: Here’s the link again: Poison and Light, by Gillian Polack
And here’s the skinny on the cover art:
Lewis Morley did sculpture for many movies for many years. That big clock face in Dark City was his work, and the strange cuckoo clock in The Mask, and several conceptual sculptures for things in Star Wars. In the garden there are heads from the Phantom and from Star Wars, growing moss instead of hair.
I don’t know if he did them or Marilyn (his partner) or both – they’re a team.
He’s in the Blue Mountains and his house is now safe, but got flooded this week. By ‘his house is safe’ I mean that he fought exceptionally hard to make sure it remained safe, and he helped his neighbours do the same with theirs. They were threatened by fire very early on. He took old metal that was left over from the set of a major film and made barriers to protect his place from flame… and they worked. And he did this picture despite all this.
It’s actually a photo. Hiding in the Blue Mountains, therefore, is a model of a street from my world. I don’t have pictures of Lewis at work on it, because I visited them before Worldcon (it’s a coincidence that the cover artist is a friend and also affected by the fires). They made a Totoro teahouse for the backyard, and I have a picture of Lewis and Marilyn in it.