"And what can I do about it? If getting out of hell is keeping it real ... what do I do to achieve that?" (p. 264)
The first volume in Justina Robson’s Quantum Gravity Series was entitled Keeping It Real. The titular joke is whether a cyborg can in any sense consider herself a real human person, let alone a real person in a reality splintered into multiple magical realms.
This question is further developed in the sequel, Selling Out, which ponders whether the only way to "keep it real" is to "sell out" a perhaps unrealistic value system as a concession to, well, what’s real. Into an already heady blend of cyberpunk, fantasy, romance, spy thriller, and chick-lit, Robson adds sweetening self-help bromides and coming-of-age reflections.
When last we left our cast of heroes, Lila Black—a sort of Emma Peel meets the Bionic Woman meets Woody Allen—had rescued her lover, the renegade elf rock star Zal, from those who fear his advocacy of racial harmony. In this case, such miscegenation encompasses elves, fairies, demons, and humans. Indeed, Black has taken this notion to a bit of an extreme by absorbing the consciousness of the otherwise dead elf, Tath, a detail she is keeping not only from Zal, but from the secret intelligence agency that employs her and to which she owes her continued existence.
Which may or may not be such a good thing, considering that such existence is the result of an experimental procedure whereby what was left of Lila’s ravaged-by-torture torso was interconnected with metallic expandable limbs that house a small arsenal, controlled by an artificial intelligence integrated into Lila’s human consciousness. That is, if you can still, strictly speaking, call her human.
Selling Out seems to suggest that what keeps us human is not so much the stuff of which we are made, but the stuff of our relationships. In this regard, Lila Black has a lot of sorting out to do. Besides what future a cyborg could possibly have with an elf with demonic tendencies, beyond ecstatic sex, there’s the issue of Zal’s previously (conveniently) unmentioned wife. How you bring up the subject of a wife with a new girlfriend might seem troublesome enough, but further complicating matters is that the fault for the murder of said wife is attributed to Lila by the elves, requiring payment of a blood debt. Lila may also have inadvertently caused the death of her parents (who are unaware that she is still alive), but they are not quite dead yet (remember, this is a fantasy) and there is a small window of opportunity to attempt their rescue. But, first, Lila has to 'fess up to a resentful sister also kept in the dark about her sibling's transformation. Moreover, it is also becoming evident that the organization that resurrected Lila views her merely as a sophisticated tool for shady purposes.
This may perhaps be reading more into the "meaning" of the novel than is merited. Robson has described the Quantum Gravity series—so-called because it is set in a world where a "quantum bomb" has fractured the hitherto impenetrable barriers separating the human realm from at least five other mythical dimensions—as an "adventure romp" and "laugh-riot" with no artistic pretensions (see, for example, her April 2006 Locus interview).
In her blog, Musapaloosa, Robson hints that she has taken some hits about forsaking "serious" science fiction for "a set of books I started purely for my own fun ... that satisfied all the bits of me that sorely needed entertaining after years and years of Serious Science Fiction. Not that SSF isn't hugely great in its own ways, but you can have enough of it and enough of being mired down in the sheer self important weight of the more academic and literary ends of things." While I’ve thought there were funny bits in previous novels, such as Silver Screen, the difference for some may be that the Quantum Gravity series is so far over the top.
It’s actually a quite marvelous and intoxicating mix, albeit one in which the author at times succumbs to her own preposterousness:
The flame surge suddenly hit him with some force—in the mind. Wasn’t this how he got to Zoomenon? Ingesting elementals. Shadowkin talents plus demon affinity for fire plus an innate curiousity equaled ... well, mostly it equaled social ostracism, and daily danger of death but in a more positive light it equaled the ability to do more than just crank up on the elemental jazz like an ordinary elf. And then he remembered Lila. She had been suffering until Dar was with her. Dar was shadowkin, full blood and aether line. He had done the other shadow trick with her—the opposite of eating—feeding. A Light Elf could have healed her but only temporarily. A Light Elf could heal the flesh and living material. It would have been energised by the elementals fooling around with her metal, but it would never have been able to ingest the elemental power and spit it back out into her metal body, doing the same to the flesh, fusing the two incompatible parts of her into a seamless being. Dar had transmuted her metal to a kind of living metal, one infused with the essence of metal spirits, which were aetheric in nature, alive. Just like now, when they were using that same technology no doubt to forge living weapons and cut the Light Elves to pieces, like the old days... (p. 159)
Quite a mouthful, eh? Even if you’ve been paying close attention up until this point, all the various dishes Robson tries to spin like an Italian juggler on methamphetamines threaten to come crashing down. Or, worse, fail to entertain. Robson, however, mostly manages to retain her balance, as well as her sense of humor:
"...But I wonder what motivates you. You struggle so hard to accept your change into a machine, why go further and become a boarding house to ghosts?’
"I like variety?" Lila said. (p. 22)
In keeping with genre conventions, this second volume in a series of at least three (the next installment, according to the author’s blog, is tentatively titled Going Under), provides back story to flesh out characters, and several plot points are left unresolved in an ending that evokes the Wizard of Oz movie, but is perhaps a more pointed reference to Thomas Wolfe’s observation that you can’t go home again (particularly if you’re a mutant). A key plot point is that Zal is keeping secrets of his own (besides his nuptial state, which is oddly undeveloped; you’d think Lila would be at least a little upset in learning her lover has a wife). There is yet another realm of "Others" and a team of "ghost busters" who might be able to find them.
How all this affects our heroes of course remains to be seen. But my guess is it’ll be as highly entertaining as it has been thus far.