“I had never stepped inside a landed god before.” Truth to tell, the god in question is the first Currija has ever seen, let alone the first one whose internal privacy she’s disturbed. Gods are not so common in Currija’s unnamed land, not since the church invaded with its black-clothed priests and its solitary, man-shaped deity. Usually these days the gods, the real ones, stay out of harm’s way, up in the sky.
What we call science fiction is first and foremost a verbal act, a special kind of grammar. “I had never stepped inside a landed god before” is a sentence that, in this world, the world where we read it, means nothing. To make any sense at all it requires a different world: a world that we make and bring to it; a world where those words have meaning, and from which they proceed.
An adept like Margo Lanagan will convince us it is not even we who are doing the labour of deduction and importation. She makes it fun: as easy as falling off a log; as straightforward as jumping to conclusions. Stepping inside a landed god, according to Currija, “is not like walking into an ordinary house, or even into an ordinary whale.” Thus, by specifically excluding them, Currija’s author ensures that precisely those two analogies occur to us, fleetingly, infinitesimally: the banal one first, then the more remote but still possible one. Even while, obediently, we’re discarding them, we envisage them; correcting, in Samuel R. Delany’s phrase, the image our minds are trying to form of Currija’s unprecedented encounter. Extraordinary house and extraordinary whale frame the thing that is definitively, demonstrably, not there at all: the novum; the emperor’s new spacesuit.
She’s bloody good, Margo Lanagan. She really is. Readers of White Time or Black Juice, her two previous collections, will recognise her custom, her knack, of getting us to lay all this conceptual brickwork, erect all these airy constructions, by familiarising us each time with the ground floor of the imaginary world: the level of the commonplace. Currija’s rite of passage in “Forever Upward” is typical of Lanagan's tales of thresholds and transitions. Over at HorrorScope, the Australian dark fiction blog, Miranda Siemienowicz identifies the significance of the so-called young adults for whom Lanagan wrote before she had the bright idea of getting the rest of us involved too. Her “fairy-tale elements and teenage protagonists,” Siemienowicz suggests, are technical devices taken from juvenile fiction to deal with subjects that are often dark, and decidedly adult.
Thus, “Baby Jane” is about a boy with a toy, a queenly figure in maternity armour, which promptly becomes life-size and gives birth in no very sanitary way on his mother’s kitchen table. “Winkie” finds a nightmare in a nursery rhyme. “A Good Heart” examines love, sex, birth, and death in the Middle Ages from the agonised viewpoint of a young man hiding in a bush. The first of this collection’s obligatory animal stories, “Monkey’s Paternoster,” does the same thing from the viewpoint of a langur monkey, while the second, “A Feather in the Breast of God,” tackles time, death, and the drug trade through the dedicated agency of a guardian angel, an erstwhile budgerigar. Even more than Ursula K. Le Guin’s, Lanagan’s stories prioritise the powerless, the empty-handed, the dispossessed. She earths her violent and uncompromising imaginings in tactile and particular detail: in worlds built from the bottom up, from the rock and mud. They are felt and smelt by characters who are closest to the ground: children, servants, peasants, and animals. As negligible viewpoints go, a dead budgie takes a lot of beating.
“She is not a solid citizen, that you can be sure of,” says Pedder, having failed, in Lanagan’s story “Mouse Maker,” to protect his neighbour Bet Cransk from being beaten up by a witch-hunting mob. “There’s always this cloud of uncertainties around her, like mist or flies. Some of the time I like that, when the solid citizens are getting up my nose; some of the time it gives me the jinks just as badly as it does everyone else.”
Bet (unpleasant old woman, disregarded, negligible) is guilty as charged, needless to say. Neighbour Pedder’s author faces that awkward fact much more boldly than he does. No jinks for Margo. There’s a decidedly practical, distinctively antipodean character to her writing: a way of standing foursquare in the midst of the cloud of uncertainties—the angels and manifestations, the children of mud, the misshapes that shudder out of a poorly tended cauldron. Lanagan breathes this stuff. While the mixture this time is arguably a bit more horror than SF, the craft is the same—the displacements, the refractions—as are the extraordinarily generous offhand revelations in the Acknowledgments: Lanagan’s customary “this is where I get my crazy ideas” section. The ideas may be crazy, but they are pretty solid. The realms of Limbo and Hell are connected by a tower of scaffolding with a ladder up the middle. The scaffolding and the ladder are made of wood and enclosed in canvas. If you’re climbing up to Hell you have to put on bootees soaked in water, to stop your feet from burning. Currija’s god is drawn down out of the sky with a baited hook on the end of a length of twine. The bait is a flying temple made from paper and cane, a kite in the shape of a house. The twine is wound and unwound from a winch by its keeper, a woman who sits beside it on a mat, on the cliff top. She has to be paid: “Mummarn gave her two big pearls and a blue-stone club. The woman put these under her sitting-mat. She unlashed the reel’s handle from the frame and began to wind in the twine.”
The winding woman winds in her hook, and with it we are hooked.
Once upon a time Colin Greenland was one of Britain's favourite authors of SF and fantasy. Then he was carried off by fairies to slave for Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. A late story has sneaked out in Interfictions, the Small Beer Press anthology. His favourite colour is blue.