In Natural History, Justina Robson gave us a tale of alien contact with a happy ending: a brave new world where the lost and rootless, the restless and adventurous, were offered the opportunity to become one with a benevolent consciousness, Unity, that offered them a kind of transcendence. Living Next-Door to the God of Love opens some thirty years later. It deals with what happens after that happy ending, with the dark lining of that silver cloud. It's about what people—humans, Forged, and others—choose to do, and what is forced upon them.
In order to explore the ramification of humanity's interactions with Unity, Robson has assembled a cast of characters as compelling as any she's created before. The protagonist of the novel—its hero—is far from human, however. When we first encounter Jalaeka, he's perched on a ledge high above a wind-swept alternate Manhattan: a twelve-foot night-black frictionless hermaphrodite, holding very still so that Unity's agents, currently sliding invisibly through the same space that he's occupying, won't notice him.
This is the Sidebar universe called Metropolis, a four-dimensional enclave where a fifth of the population are comic-book superheroes. Many of the other inhabitants of Metropolis are not human at all, but are made of Stuff. Stuff is, well, the stuff of dreams—a substance that is part of Unity, that is sentient and compassionate, that welcomes humanity to advance and to become. Not everyone wants to subsume their self in Unity, though. Jalaeka's dead set against the idea.
Fleeing Unity and the darkness that's encroaching upon Metropolis, Jalaeka becomes something quite other: he washes up in Sankhara, a "high-interaction" Sidebar, and makes himself at home. Chance, apparently, brings him (or her: the hermaphrodite body's gone, but Jalaeka, as Cadenza Fortitude, makes an unnaturally convincing woman in drag) to the dressing room that Francine, a teenaged runaway from Leeds, is scrubbing clean.
Francine is a Genie, a genetically engineered human, designed by her mother to be attractive, socially adjusted, and very, very bright. Having had her fill of the kind of teenage rebellion that involves behaving like an adult (stealing, drinking too much, and sleeping around) she flees her safe suburban home and her evil stepfather, stows away in an unmanned taxi, and ends up in Sankhara. She falls, somehow, into dull-but-safe company, handing out leaflets for the Love Foundation ("Do you ever wonder what the point of life is now that you can be young, beautiful, wealthy, educated and long-lived?") and befriending Greg Saxton, lecturer in Unity Studies at the University, who's studying Sankhara and the stories and myths that are encoded within it.
Jalaeka and Francine fall in love, immediately and irrevocably, like something out of a fairy tale. Their romance is a key strand of the novel: in a sense it's what the novel's about. Jalaeka is made (and written) to be loved. It's not only Francine who adores him. Greg finds himself drawn to Jalaeka too, not least because of the puzzle he represents: he's not human, and he's not Stuff. And Unity is out to get him.
Unity is not quite omnipotent nor omniscient, but close enough that many humans think of it as a god. It's surely no coincidence that its ambassador to humanity is named Theodore, the "gift of God." Theo is simultaneously drawn to humanity, to bodies—how vile to be nauseated by one's appetites—and repelled by the whole notion of living a physical incarnation, separate from Unity. And yet the power, the freedom and the sheer sensation of his new role are seductive. Gradually he becomes more physical, more human, like an angel falling very slowly from Heaven. Gradually, he and his minion Rita (a creature made of Stuff, but humanly aware and resentful of Theo's control) draw closer to Sankhara, and their prey.
Jalaeka being what he is, he's vulnerable not in himself but through those he loves. Francine becomes Theo's prey: so does Greg. Both of them have their choices taken away from them in ways that, though different, are equally brutal. There's something very primitive about Theo's attack on Francine, something that foreshadows (or echoes) events from Jalaeka's history. But the trap he lays for Greg frames the two of them—the student of Unity and Unity's human agent—as mirror images of one another. Theo rejects humanity, yet he wants to know and live and understand it in a way that Unity's vast store of information, experience, and memory can never grant him. Greg fears and resists Unity, the focus of his studies, but he's forced into intimacy with it; the ultimate in participant observation. The gods begin to talk to him in the regular noises of his environment: the creak of the door, the clatter of balls on a pool table.
Luckily there's another god with whom Greg's on pretty good terms, by now.
Jalaeka's tale is a simple one, at least the way he tells it. He was brought into being on a pre-industrial world as a Champion opposing Unity; embarked upon a series of picturesque (and picaresque) adventures, from piracy to studying physics and biology at MIT in the mid 1990s—half a millennium before Voyager Lonestar Isol's encounter with Stuff and with Unity, but then Jalaeka's experience of time is not quite like anyone else's—and finally came to Sankhara, where he and Francine were brought together as surely as magnets.
That's his version. Greg spends a great deal of the novel working towards an understanding of Jalaeka's true nature. Jalaeka, according to Unity, is a Splinter of Unity itself—perhaps one that became separate as a result of Unity's initial encounter with humanity. He's a self-aware fragment that has all the power of the original, plus a determination not to lose itself—himself—in some immersive golden void. He lives in a fantastical reproduction of the Winter Palace, deep within a snow-covered forest hidden inside a pocket universe at the heart of Sankhara—a universe that came into being on the day that he arrived. He's beautiful and generous, gracefully bisexual (or more likely omnisexual), utterly devoted to Francine, and able to bestow something called darshan, the grace of god, upon those he deems worthy. To all intents and purposes, he's a god, as powerful as Theo and Unity but in opposition to them. As Greg undergoes his own transformation, he begins to understand just what that entails.
Every god must have worshippers. Francine has become Jalaeka's high priestess without realising the responsibilities that come with the position. If that were the sole force shaping their relationship, there'd be little space for Francine (or Jalaeka) to grow and change. It's the romantic cliché of love at first sight, but the process of falling in love, of discovering one another, is more gradual and, ultimately, much richer and more meaningful. It is Francine who learns, at last, about some of the brutally primitive events that shaped and created Jalaeka; Francine who realises that not even a god is necessarily free to choose.
Jalaeka's nature allows him to experience time in a decidedly non-linear manner. If, as is implied, he sprang fully formed from Unity when Corvax and Isol and Zephyr first became Translated, he's packed a great deal of living into a scant thirty years. But then, there's no evidence that he ever had a childhood. That's not to say that he hasn't changed. More than most people, Jalaeka has been continually shaped and guided and transformed by those around him; by lovers, by kings and queens hungry for power, by his friends, by his foes. There's a hint of legend about him, a sense that he is constantly remade according to the prevailing myths and memes of the time. He is the archetypal hero, the fairy tale prince.
Living Next-Door to the God of Love doesn't rely on symbolism, imagery and cultural reference for effect, but there's plenty to be found. Wolves howl in the vast, expanding forest that surrounds the Winter Palace; an oak tree grows in the attic; there are stills from Apocalypse Now on the walls; and the view from the window is of Wuthering Heights, as recreated by the Yorkshire Tourist Board. If Jalaeka seems strangely powerless in his current incarnation, there's a stained-glass window at the Cathedral—a girl like Francine all in white, cradling the body of Cadenza Fortitude—to remind him of his potential.
The drawback of a setting with all this richness and complexity—of protean Stuff that can assume any form, and massively powerful entities that can control how the universe is perceived—is that anything might be a metaphor. The Engine that controls Sankhara is experienced by Greg as exactly that: a mighty engine, vast wheels turning, steam and smoke and cacophony. Its security agents manifest as grotesque vampires that are paid off in blood. It would be an exaggeration to say that nothing is what it seems in this novel: yet the reader must continually be aware that reality is in the eye of the observer.
Robson's supreme strength as a writer of science fiction has always been her ability to create characters whose point of view offers a new perspective on the world in which they exist and act. In Living Next-Door to the God of Love, she handles her characters' voices with confidence and wit, weaving together multiple stories to produce an elaborate whole that's somehow, finally, compacted into a simple seed, a timeless myth of death and resurrection.
Tanya Brown lives in the U.K.