Carolyn Ives Gilman’s Candle in a Bottle is an adaptation of a novella that appeared in the 47th anniversary issue of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1996. It is a dense, tightly textured work whose every word is freighted with meaning—as it should be in short fiction but disconcerting in what feels like an almost full-length book to a reader used to the bloat of airport-size novels.
Set centuries, perhaps a millennium in the future, Candle in a Bottle takes place mainly at the Institut Sorel, a mountain retreat overlooking the Neige Valley. The setting is reminiscent of the mountain fastnesses of Vonda MacIntyre’s Dreamsnake, and is where an advanced data-monitoring system known as the Oracle is used by the institution’s savants and voyants (those few with minds suitable to decode the complexity of the Oracle’s graphs) to guide society. The institute is one of several overseeing a more ordered world than ours, but the order is the result of a delicate balancing act between stasis and chaos rather than of chance.
This is a post-Renaissance society—although what form was taken by the
collapse that the world is recovering from is only hinted at: “They [the institute's inhabitants] are too wise to be ruled by machines, as pre-Renaissance people were.” Pilgrims evoke images of a mediaeval order, while satellite dishes and antennae imply that this is the future.
But any idea that this is simply a sketched, standard science fictional agrarian utopia is swept away in the opening pages, where shop assistants in rural backwaters wearing headnets and eyephones compare their tele-voting choices while complaining bitterly about the supposed snobbery of the institute’s scholars. Here is the rub and chafing of real people, amidst the tides of information swirling around their world.
Dominique and Gabriel Cadot are brothers who trudge across the mountains to the institute, in a haunting echo of the Envoy’s march across the glaciers in Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness. Gabriel is convinced that he will be taken on by the institute as a savant, but it is the kind, gentle Dominique—who only accompanies Gabriel to look after him at their mother’s urging—who is asked to join the order as a voyant. The institute is facing a desperate shortage of these specialists at a time of imminent and significant societal change, perhaps originating from the institute itself. Worse, no one knows what form that change will take.
Dominique is asked to become apprentice to the institute’s only current voyant. He meets the enigmatic Aristide, who claims to be also apprenticed to the Voyant Raspail. It is clear that Aristide is disturbed, but Dominique, who has been asked to spy on Raspail, is reluctant to report this to the Voice, who runs the institute, partly for fear of what will happen to Aristide and partly in revulsion at being used as a tool.
Raspail, Aristide, and Dominique are themselves the keys to the changes that the institute has been forewarned about. Obsessive love rather than scientific methodology is the harbinger of the new order. Gilman takes the Order’s method, discipline, and training and confronts them with the messy realities of emotions; the institute may be able to map whole societies, but it is inadequate in the face of love and manipulation.
I found it difficult to fit Candle in a Bottle into any overt feminist agenda, and that it doesn’t seem to fit Aqueduct’s manifesto of producing "speculations and visions of the grand conversation of feminist sf" is endorsed by the editor’s preface: "The Conversation Pieces series presents a wide variety of texts, including short fiction (which may not always be sf and may not necessarily even be feminist)."
Candle in a Bottle is closer to the quiet utopia of Le Guin’s The Dispossessed than the firebrand polemics of Joanna Russ’s The Female Man. Here is a realistic society, midway between utopia and dystopia. In the town and villages of the Neige Valley, men and women work together in the equilibrium of a postfeminist world where the battle lines are less clear than they would be in a straightforward war of the sexes. Here the conflict is one of ideas, how to walk a middle line between chaos and stagnation.
But Gilman has other interests. The book has a feminist outlook, and it is concerned with the way information, that crucial currency of the third millennium, is represented in this world and in the story itself. The Oracle, with its topography of civilisation as landscape, represents an architecture of ideas every part as evocative as the cyberspace of William Gibson’s Case novels (Neuromancer, Burning Chrome, and Mona Lisa Overdrive).
Gibson and the other cyberpunks drew chiaroscuro sketches of cyberspace that portray it as a mechanistic dystopia, an internal landscape mirroring an external world of designer-branded info-shades, often where women are primarily commodities or angels/whores present solely to be victim or betrayer—or both.
Gilman’s interiorscape is by contrast pastoral, with ideas shaping a complex, rounded society rather than taking the simplistic plot view of neo-noir, with big, sexy, villainous corporations taking over the world. Cyberpunk drew an adolescent worldview that was taken up by anti-globalists whose understanding of what really happens within corporations comes from Hollywood and Ace Books.
But Gilman has posited a much subtler, feminist agenda—by updating and upgrading the information mechanics of the cyberpunk movement and replacing the boy-toy faux-noir cliches with a more rounded and mature setting, she has written a feminist novel that doesn’t at first sight appear to be anything to do with feminism. Here the authorial depiction—rather than the setting or characters—is the feminist perspective.
The danger with intense dissection of a story’s supposed agenda is that first, interpretations are entirely subjective, and second, the story can become secondary to the agenda.
Gilman never for one moment allows her story to become secondary to authorial political agendas. That’s one of the strengths of Candle in a Bottle. Gilman has written a postfeminist-postcyberpunk work, but it would be easier to describe Candle in a Bottle as simply a very good book, and one that every discerning reader should read.
Colin Harvey is working on a novel, The Silk Palace, for 2007 publication. He has a website and a presence on MySpace to promote Lightning Days. When he isn't writing or reading, he’s earning a crust in the real world, but prefers the unreal one.