The story starts when Lila Black speaks. Malachi, her faery colleague and friend, has walked with Lila every day since she returned to the human world to find fifty years, and almost everyone she knows, gone. His conversational overtures, however, have until now been met with silence. Lila sticks to her routine, even in a wintry February. She gets her coffee; she walks on the beach; she visits her sister's grave; she considers the world's transformation, and her own. But the story that is Chasing the Dragon starts when it does because that is when Lila Black is ready to speak.
There are other ways to read this opening. Any novel in which a mystical sword is also literally a mystical pen that may be able to rewrite the world is a novel that invites consideration not just as a depiction of events happening to characters, but as an interweaving of signs and symbols. But looking at the opening of Chasing the Dragon through a lens of Lila helps to make sense of what is at first glance, for all its sentence-level surefootedness, a rather oddly structured book. Whatever their flaws, the other three Quantum Gravity books—Keeping it Real (2006), Selling Out (2007), and Going Under (2008)—always felt as though they knew where they were going. Here, a meandering, introspective first half gives way to a more energetic but fragmented second half, and the whole thing wraps up with what might seem like a surprisingly low-key ending. Moreover there are, for the first time, moments when Lila can be understood as something less than the star of her own show.
Given the transitions and transformations that took place at the end of Going Under, all of this may surprise. Most of Lila's chosen (or perhaps "acquired") family—most notably her elf husband, Zal, but also the necromancer Tath, and the imp Thingamajig—are lost to her, and, as a result of that fifty-year skip, the few biological relatives she had left are now dead. The inner battle that Lila had been waging since the start of the series, against the encroachment of the mysterious technology that saved her life but turned her into a death-dealing cyborg, has ended, or at least progressed to a new stage. She is now all tech, "a replica of a human being" (p. 22), even if she's still Lila. And thanks to Lila's decisions, the human world—known in these books as Otopia—has been infected by magic from the aetheric realms revealed to humans by the Quantum Bomb Event of 2015. Ghost ships have been washing up on the shore.
All of this should provide a clear focus. Chasing the Dragon is, as Malachi very nearly puts it at one point, about getting the band back together. And yet, much of the book seems precisely unfocused. Lila has things to act on, but seems to drift through her chapters letting others shape events, whether that’s Malachi, updating Lila on the state of Otopia, or Lila’s other husband, the demon Teazle, reporting on the killing spree he’s undertaking in his home city. Meanwhile, around the half-way mark, as though bored of waiting for Lila to find him, Zal starts to negotiate his own way back to the living. None of this is very narratively satisfying, and the ultimately-revealed connections between the events of Chasing the Dragon and Lila’s actions at the end of Going Under are too tenuous to knit the novel together.
So here's another angle of attack. As playful as it often is, to my mind Quantum Gravity is at its heart about the relationship between individuals and the world: about finding and owning and telling your story in spite of the world. To this point, the emphasis has been on finding, and to a lesser extent on owning. On Lila's need for self-knowledge, in other words, invariably reflected in the worlds around her, and brought to a head in Going Under, with its journey from Daemonia, where hell is living with an inaccurate understanding of reality, to Faery, where the deeper you go the more yourself you become. At the end of that book, Lila became more herself, as well as becoming whatever it is that the machines have made her. She is, for all her angsty trysts with Teazle, more secure in Chasing the Dragon than she has ever been. "I decided I wasn't going to be an instrument anymore," she tells Malachi. "I wasn't going to be a good girl and serve my saviours. No martyrdom anymore. It's all me now" (p. 242). So now the emphasis is on telling, and the spite of the world.
In a series like Quantum Gravity, which has never exactly been short on telling, this is interesting. Robson's worldbuilding is an extraordinary thing to experience, in fact, with a density of invention that puts Charles Stross to shame—and the crucial, perhaps satiric, difference that Robson gestures towards what we understand reality be no more than she absolutely has to. The result is an insane, tottering edifice of world, an incredible cosmological noise constantly spinning out notions ("Zal's music made a lot of people free" [p. 30], Malachi tells Lila, out of the blue, implying some kind of literal metaphysical freedom; to which the only possible response is: how? Why? How?) and, more often than not, get-out-of-plot-corner-free cards. But this freewheeling approach is also what allows some of the series' most charming and most poignant moments. In the former category, thanks to some temperamental shape-changing clothing (actually the Otopian manifestation of an ancient fey, it seems), Chasing the Dragon offers up the image of Lila in killer-robot form wearing a skimpy designer swimsuit; in the latter, a conversation with a woman more completely possessed by the machinery than Lila has been, whose past life is an abstract: "We have no memory, so we have no loss," she tells Lila. "Just this story" (p. 158). It's also a wry aesthetic, one happy to reveal where Zal is with a blast of wonder—
His path traced the edge of the known world, about a mile from the line where the geography and atmosphere of Under broke up and faded away. Beyond it and, he thought, around it, was a starry void not unlike deep space, except that instead of showing vast tracts of black emptiness it was filled with shimmering, endlessly flowing fields of faint light. (p. 194)
—before casually mentioning, a few pages later, that "he was still surprised sometimes to look down and find that he was made of cloth" (p. 198).
What's foregrounded in Chasing the Dragon is how the whole enterprise consistently hovers on the edge of making sense, and how it carefully refuses that option. Humanity is in philosophical crisis, with a government that will officially denies the magic burning through their dimension, clinging to an "objective materialist" worldview, despite staggering evidence to the contrary. As Lila's marvellously scenery-chewing new notional boss puts it: "Why can there never be an answer I can use in a goddamned report?" (p. 34). Even Malachi, who shakes his head at the human (and readerly) need for explanations—"Surely it was just an infinite cascade of reasons that led back whimsically into the first moments of time itself?" (p. 182)—finds himself frustrated in this outing. "Usually, usually!" he fumes, after a particularly irritating half-answer. "Damn it, there has to be some law!" (p. 326). But there isn't.
What there is, is the Signal: "the whisper of near-silent static that was no static", the sound of the machines that have become Lila, the noise that may be communication from an intelligence Elsewhere, or may be the intelligence itself. This is what Lila thinks about the Signal:
Listening felt like doing something, as if eventually, listen long enough and all the answers to what bothered her would pop out in a moment of blissful lateral inspiration. She'd waited months, and all she got was sodden with knowledge about things, their material forms, their movements, the operations of the cosmos, the permutations of series ... dead things, to be honest. (p. 160)
At its most oppressively tantalizing, this is what reading Quantum Gravity is like. It has some similarities, I think, with the sort of reading experience Tricia Sullivan attempts in Sound Mind (2007): action in tension with abstraction, signs and symbols in tension with character and plot. "Everything is talk," says Malachi, "everything is meaning. There is nothing that isn't talking, nothing that isn't calling, signalling, to everything else all the time" (p. 64). The Signal is the noise of everything signifying.
Any review is a decision about which signifiers to notice. I say the Signal is the noise that deforms Chasing the Dragon; the noise over which Lila must speak. I say that what makes most sense now is to understand the universe in which Lila lives as being kin to the universe of M John Harrison's Light (2002). It is a place where reality is what you perceive it to be; or, to emphasize the active nature of the process, a place where reality is the story you tell about it, which is why the book’s villain, whose goal is paraphrased by Lila as seeking "absolute creative authority" (p. 290), is so terrible, and why the promise of answers in the Signal is so seductive. So when Lila finds a way to trump, it’s a way of making the story hers after all. That’s how I choose to make sense of Chasing the Dragon. Call it empowerment, if you like: this story starts when Lila Black is ready to speak, and finishes when she writes The End.