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Origamy coverLet's start with a lesson, shall we?

Origamy (noun). The circus art of spacetime travel.

Origamy (verb). The artful and athletic practice of weaving spacetime fabrics to discover outlandish places and events.

Semantically, origamy is a condensation of three ideas.

Orig(ins). This root refers to the origins of life. It is concerned with the art and science of making life, the transitions between inert and living matter, as well as the craft of 'living'.

 (G)amy. This stem indicates the game-like qualities of spacetime fabric folding.

 (Gamy) also refers to 'gametes', the seeds of life whose fusion gives rise to new and varied bodies.

Origamer (noun). One who explores various dimensions of existence and encounters different life forms by applying a range of practices to travel through space time. (pp. 16-17)

This extract from Origamy, the debut novel from Rachel Armstrong, is a perfect example of what is wrong with the book as a whole. We didn't need to know all this. This is speculative fiction. Throw us a word and we'll accept it. Explain it in minute detail and some of the magic is taken away.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's start at the beginning.

Origamy is told from the perspective of Mobius, one of many Origamers—but one who seems to be losing her ability to manipulate space-time with any expertise. In fact, she finds herself going back to basics and having to learn with the “younglings at the weaver equivalent of primary school. She must deal with jealousy and frustration as the younglings surpass her and as nobody tells her why she has lost her talents.  Alongside this, Mobius tries to get to grips with her maddeningly hands-off parents, as well as picking up an infection that may have catastrophic implications. As she practices her weaving, meanwhile, she tries to follow a child who is always just out of her grasp—and comes across a darkness that seems to pervade all of the worlds she visits along the way.

When I first picked up this book, I was excited. The hook had me, well, hooked. The idea of beings weaving their way through time and space, all the while encountering new worlds, and with a “dark menace” threatening to destroy the universe, is not really a new one, but it's always been a good one. It will be mined for many years to come. I was excited. And a quick look at the contents of the book told me that it would be an easy, fun and different read.

I was wrong. Not about it being different—I can honestly say that I have never read anything quite like Origamy. Armstrong obviously did not feel constrained by traditional narrative structure when writing this book—and why should she? Her day job is Professor of Experimental Architecture at Newcastle University in the UK. Her most well known works posit ways of creating architecture that repairs itself—this is a person who is working on those things that you and I read about in SF, and on making them a reality. This is someone who doesn't think in the same way as most people—an advantage, some might say, when dealing with SF, and possibly the reason Origamy reads so experimentally. Alas, not all experiments yield the results one might hope for.

So, the first thing I was wrong about is that the book was not an easy read. At under three hundred pages—and with chapters that, in length, resembled those of a Dan Brown novel, which boast fun titles such as “Island of Cheese” and “Magic Beans”—I assumed it would be a breeze. The problem is my assumption was also that I would understand what was going on. Which I didn't, at least not straight away. Many pages required repeat reading, which automatically raised my expectations. If I'm going to be made to work hard I'm going to want a really satisfying experience, with all the information I've gleaned from the book feeding into a rewarding conclusion.

This leads me on to my next point: Origamy wasn't a fun read for me, either. It soon becomes apparent that Armstrong is not the kind of author who is willing to obey Orwell’s old maxims. Her writing is dense and jargon–filled, and the moments where the story takes off few and far between. She is not afraid to use technical language, long words or—as we’ve established—compose extensive lists to flesh out descriptions when a few well chosen examples would suffice:

It has the capacity to break down fifty seven non-food substances like glass, metal, plastic, pebbles, concrete, electronic circuitry, cavity wall insulation, masonry, explosive and gold ingots. (p. 39)

Or here's another example from the same page:

Transgenics have often been seen swallowing beads, cutlery, gravel, swords, jewellery, broken glass, ceramics, bathroom tiles and scrap metal …  (p. 39)

And what about this?

There were clams, and mussels, and oysters, and cracked crab, and snow crab, and king crab ... peanuts, and cashews, and almonds, and filberts … (also p. 39)

That last one isn't in the book. That was a quote from the Friends episode “The One with the Soap Opera Party,” in which Ross and fellow paleontologist Charlie are saddled with boring Professor Spafford, who reels off a seafood buffet and a list of things he's allergic to one by one. It is meant as a catch-all joke to show how boring he is, but here, in Origamy, it is used as a genuine way to describe things. If it just happened on one page it wouldn't be a problem, but the technique crops up more than once—enough to frustrate me as a reader, which is something an author generally doesn't want to do.

Now, this is not to say that a book has to be fun but it does have to be pleasurable. No, I’ll go back on that. It doesn’t have to be pleasurable either; if you want to write a book that can only be read through a microscope and bind it in sandpaper, that’s artistically valid; but that's not the problem with this book. If it was simply challenging I would accept that it just wasn't for me, but it isn't simply that it makes you think, or that it makes you work for your little bit of literary goodness, it's that in between the ideas it is clunky.

For example, besides the list making, for the majority of the book people don't just say things. Instead, they grumble, insist, retort, trill—any number of verbs that could have easily been implied rather than stated. (And see how I finished my list at four examples because I'm not writing out a contract?) This immediately takes you out of the book as you wait for somebody to ejaculate a sentence. There is simply no reason for this to be there.

The reason I'm being so hard on this book is that it's a missed opportunity. Rachel Armstrong is smart at a level many can only dream of being, and the ideas throughout this book hint at something that could be great; but my main problem is the same one I had with Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter's The Long Mars. The book opens up the possibility of infinite worlds but never spends much time in them, making the reading experience similar to that which you might get if you visit the Louvre five minutes before closing. You might get a chance to whiz through the gallery and see a bunch of stuff, but you aren't going to appreciate it or take it in. This is even more apparent in Origamy, as the book is so short that the visits to those worlds only ever last a few pages at a time, and, as hard as Armstrong tries, the descriptions she gives just aren't enough to make for a satisfying reading experience.

I think the main reason this book isn't successful is that Armstrong not only tried to integrate her science into her story but that she decided to use such an unusual narrative structure. If it had worked it would have made for something spectacular. Sadly, something has gone wrong along the way and, despite some of the story being fascinating, with ideas being thrown at the reader every couple of sentences, the story has no room to breathe. I'm a huge fan of books that experiment with the form; I don't want to read a story that goes act one, act two, little twist, end, every time, and I don't want every thing spelled out for me; but I if do expect a novel to be well-written.

In my last review for Strange Horizons, I lamented that Kit Reed's Mormama rushed its ending, and a similar thing happens with Origamy. After a slow-burn build-up and several tangents which explain things that did not need to be explained, the climax of the battle between the origamers and the dark force [1] comes in a rush. It is seeded well enough throughout the book, but when it comes it speeds by, leaving you feeling unsatisfied. Part of this is because it's hard to care about these characters. The only one we spend any reasonable amount of time with is Mobius, and she never comes across as likeable enough to latch on to. In fact the only times I felt any connection to the characters were in two short sections that give a little backstory.

One tells the history of Mobius' parents, a rather charming and odd love story involving a geriatric ward and circus midgets. As charming as this story is, it feels like a short story that could live independently from the book and its excision from the overall plot would not be missed. The other is more essential to the plot but also feels like a standalone story. It is also a tale of love, but a much darker one that reminds me of stories I read by Helen Oyeyemi in What is Not Yours is Not Yours (2016), with a splash of Neil Gaiman. In fact, What is Not Yours is Not Yours is awash with stories that have the same challenging feel of Origamy, but you never feel lost in the detail. Oyeyemi has a talent to draw you back to the story, no matter how strange things get, whereas Armstrong allows you to get lost amongst the prose, and not in a good way. For example, when there's a major plot point in Origamy, you experience a kind of mental whiplash, as if Armstrong is saying “Right, now's the time for story.” Maybe this is her intention, maybe she has purposely made the story extremely disjointed, but I feel that it’s this disjointed approach that ruins the book and the ending in particular.

That climax takes the form of a battle, and it is at odds with the rest of the book. Throughout Origamy the reader flits from place to place, visiting wondrous worlds—and the writing style reflects that transience. When you reach the battle, however, the style changes. All of a sudden, it’s like you are in a pulp sci-fi book. In relation to the rest of the story, this is a come down—because, although Origamy is a frustrating book at times, you have worked to get to this point. After the hard work it takes to read the text, Armstrong needed a more satisfying, organic resolution. As it is, the novel just makes you feel as if you've worked for nothing, towards a conclusion that does not reflect anything that went before.

Origamy is the result of a scientist being allowed to run riot in fiction without having their scientific approach curbed. A lot of the time, the novel reads like a scientific paper that has had a narrative woven into it—as opposed to the science being woven seamlessly into the narrative. I love hard sf, but I also love a good story, and when the former detracts from the latter it makes for an uncomfortable reading experience. That said, Armstrong should be applauded for trying to do something new; with more room to breathe and less exposition, the book could have been great. Instead, however, Origamy feels like it is halfway between an under-edited short story and an under-written novel.

Endnotes

[1] Spiders. They're big ol' hairy space-time spiders. I wasn't going to mention this, but the fact that the novel’s villains are essentially SyFy channel film characters in a relatively high-brow book is the main thing I like about it.



Mark Granger is trying to be a writer. His work has been used on BBC Radio 4 Extra and his short stories have been shortlisted in several competitions. His work can be found at mark-granger.tumblr.com. Although he barely updates it nowadays. One day he’ll get a proper website and stop referring to himself in the third person.
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