Nina Allan's new novella, Spin, is the second work published by a new novella-by-subscription line from TTA Press, also publishers of the magazines Interzone and Black Static. The first, Eyepennies by Mike O'Driscoll, debuted in November 2012, and the titles and authors of the next three publications in the series have been announced, although with no dates as of yet. The novellas are available singly as well as by subscription, and the presentation and physical appearance of the one I have in hand are great. It has good-quality paper, cover art which is professional, appropriate, and probably even aesthetically pleasing for those who enjoy large pictures of spiders on their book covers, and solid and thorough copyediting and typesetting.
I mention this because this way of publishing is a cross between a magazine model, in which short fiction is produced in a format which has historically been considered disposable, and a book model, in which fiction is produced in a format which has generally been considered far more permanent. The novella in particular benefits from this cross. Printed in a magazine, a novella may be too long for the space available, and may end up needing to be cut into chunks and serialized. Left alone, it can take up a disproportionate amount of the issue, annoying readers who would like more room for other parts of the magazine. Magazines also do not have the archival advantages of a book: generally better physical materials, individual ISBNs for individual stories, and the ability to be rebound relatively easily when necessary. However, as a book to itself, on paper, a novella can feel too short for its price (especially in hardcover), and has to fend for itself in a marketplace filled with novels, which are becoming fatter and fatter as the years go by. Because of this competition, it's difficult to sell novellas as individual books unless they're by well-established authors whose names alone can draw an audience. Novellas by subscription—book-quality publications at slightly more than the price of magazines, but less than the price of novels—solve all of these issues handily. The novella is an important form to the history of science fiction and it's great to see them published in a way which really works to their advantage. It's also nice to see that TTA Press is keeping up with the times and simultaneously issuing these works as ebooks.
So how is this particular novella?
It ought to have been a novel.
Spin is not, exactly, a retelling of the ancient Greek myth of Arachne and Athena, in which Arachne boasts that she weaves better than the goddess who invented the very art of weaving itself, and Athena punishes her by turning her into the very first spider. (Whether Arachne's claims are true varies between versions of the story.) Spin is a set of sideways allusions to that story, a look at an artist's coming-of-age set in a world in which the cultural sphere of ancient Greece has remained dominant and in which a samizdat version of ancient Greek religion coexists uneasily with futuristic technology. The protagonist, Layla, is a weaver and a good one, but the question is not whether she is better than Athena at weaving or at anything weaving leads her into. It's whether she is capable of admitting that her weaving grants her magical powers such as healing and foresight, and of accepting the worldview that the existence of those powers implies.
The worldbuilding is by far the best part of Spin, and it's the worldbuilding which carries the weight of making it clear that Layla's powers are real and of making it obvious why she doesn't want to use them or admit to them. The Greece in which Layla grows up is a society with massive differences between its rich and its poor, in which factory workers live in shantytowns in the shadow of the enormous skyways which link the world together via mass transit. Layla grew up in Kardamyli, a port town in the Mani (the western Peloponnesus) which is readily recognizable as having maintained its essential character in her alternate future, a feeling of place which both exists in the present day and remains unchanged from the travel writings of Patrick Leigh Fermor, who wrote about the region sixty-odd years ago. Holographic projectors provide back-wall portraits of olive groves and picturesque wild hillsides to the rich in their mansions in Atoll City (almost certainly formerly Athens), while elsewhere in the country those picturesque hillsides and groves are traversable only by inconvenient and crowded buses without sanitation or available drinking water. Tyrian merchants have lost the monopoly on purple dye to Layla's father, but tourism is the only industry in the ruinous old city of Corinth.
I was lucky enough to read this book while traveling in Greece, and the portrait of the country here feels grounded in sensual detail, unflinching, and very little different from reality in many ways, although of course I mean, as I have to, the reality as seen by a tourist. Here's an example of the ranging palette of Allan's details:
She left the museum and entered the network of narrow streets that formed its hinterland. She had grown accustomed to the city almost overnight, recognizing in its parched squares and sunken gardens and junk-filled backyards a landscape that tolerated her presence and soothed her spirit like no other. Also there were colours, colours everywhere. What she was used to was the aqua-sage-rust palette of Kardamyli and the Taygetus. But on the streets of Atoll City the sheer profusion of people and commodities meant these three base hues were overlaid with a thousand others: wasp-orange and devil-white, the sour blue of mould, the sweet chestnut of horse dung, the weeping pink of azalea blossom, the searing catamite yellow of the robes of choirboys on their way to the temple. (p. 33)
To someone sitting in a roof garden in Rhodes Old Town, this is almost a travelogue. Except for those choirboys, because this Greece is under the control of a repressively tyrannical government and an unspecified but also repressive religion. (The dominant religion is definitely not Christianity and it is made explicitly textually clear that it is not.) Layla accepts a world in which poets can be banned and exiled for heresy and anti-government sentiment without questioning very much that that can happen. In a neat touch, the relevant poet this happened to, whose work Layla begins to read, has a life story exactly parallel to that of Ovid, whose Metamorphoses are one of our principal sources for the story of Athena and Arachne, and who supplies the epigraph for the novella. But in addition to these non-fantastical political details, the government, religion, and people are also very much aware of the existence of women called sibyls, who have magical powers, usually powers of foretelling, which come from the ancient gods. Clairvoyancy has only just been made legal, and Layla's own mother was executed by the government for paranormal activity. Layla does not want to be cast out and destroyed in the way her mother was, and, more than that, does not want the complicated fame and possible legal persecution which would come from being known as a sibyl. In addition, she does not want to become famous as an artist because of a gift granted by the gods, but because of her own hard work, good eye, and talent.
These are complicated themes, which tangle in complicated ways with each other and with the worldbuilding. Without the gods, would Layla be an artist at all, or are her artistic gifts identical to her magical ones? Is sibyldom hereditary, and if so, what does that mean for Layla's personal life? When the goddess Athena turns up and indicates in no uncertain terms that Layla ought to be healing, fortune-telling, and reshaping the world with her weaving, is it cowardly, brave, or simply dangerous to refuse her? Does Layla owe her mother a duty to be a sibyl, or a duty not to be a sibyl—and what about her still-living father, with whom she has a relationship centered around not talking about her mother's memory?
In a story twenty-three thousand words long, there's space to bring up all these questions, and to answer a few of them. There's space for the reader to theorize much of the cultural history of the world Layla lives in, through Allan's clever use of Hellenic names and references to famous philosophers and historical figures. There's space for Layla to be frightened and alone, to be confident and wrapped up in her work, to be certain and to be uncertain, to experiment. There's space for Athena to shape-change and meddle and to be terrifying and incomprehensible. What there isn't is enough space for Allan to resolve everything, or to leave the things that can't be resolved unresolved in a way which looks intentional. Layla's journey of self-discovery and growth has been shown to the reader slowly, as a process, in which Layla discovers things she needs and doesn't need through trial and error. This represents the way a certain kind of artist works very well indeed, and it's nice to see a writer allow a character to take the time to unfold this way. But the intervention of Athena in Layla's life definitively disrupts that process, and that disruption takes place so late in the story that, although we are told that the final meeting with the goddess changes everything, we quite literally do not see how it changes everything.
Layla is not Arachne, does not make the same boast, and spiders very definitely already exist in the world of the story; if Layla has been physically changed at the end, as the text suggests she has been, it is not into a simple spider. But we don't know what she's been changed into, and how that change is going to affect the questions that have been stirred up in and by Layla's life. The last few pages of Spin suggest that all of the character development and life experience we have witnessed will have to be completely refashioned, discarded, or reapplied. That slow development and experience, in a living, breathing world, is the heart of the story and should not be discarded in favor of the pressures of plot. If this were a novel, Allan could have had time to show us Layla's adaptations from her previous existence to whatever her life is now, and whatever adaptations the world Allan has brought to life might have to make to Layla. The unforced pace could then have quietly proceeded to show us tragedy, or comedy, or simply more of the day-to-day life of a woman and an artist in peculiar circumstances. And then the ending could have been satisfying.
As it is, this is a magnificent reading experience until the last few pages, at which point it becomes needlessly confusing, forces unnecessary plot developments, and generally goes off the rails. There is undoubtedly room in the world of Spin for many more stories than this single novella gives us, whether those stories deal with these characters or not, and I hope that someday Allan decides to provide us with some of those stories. For now, the reasons to read Spin are its lush sensory details, its mixture of compelling elements from the past and the future, its evocation of a believably frightening and wondrously recognizable Greece, and its attempts to observe the creation of art and the creation of the future, which may or may not be the same thing to an outside observer. The frustration of the ending does not entirely belie the story's very real strengths.
Lila Garrott has blue hair and brown eyes. Her fiction, poetry, and criticism have appeared in Not One of Us, Mythic Delirium, and other venues. She recently completed a project in which she read a book and wrote a review of it every day for a year; the reviews may be found on Dreamwidth and LiveJournal.