The Chimes is set sometime in our future, or in an alternate present. Simon Wythern is a farm boy and an orphan, though he doesn’t remember exactly how or when he came to be one. He is travelling to London in search of Netty, an old friend of his mother. He doesn’t know why he’s looking for Netty, only that she is supposed to help him. When he eventually finds her, she refuses to recognise him. Her rejection seems incomprehensible, and final. Cast adrift in London, Simon falls in with Five Rover Pact, a group of young scavengers who are paid to seek out found nuggets of a precious "mettle" from the mud of the river. Their leader, Lucien, recognises in Simon a special talent—not only for hearing the high, pure call of the palladium they seek as their livelihood, but for divining memories. A new life, and a new mission for Simon Wythern has begun.
The narrative then jumps forward thirteen months. We pick up the story with Simon now fully acclimatised to London and his new life with the pact, but with only the vaguest notions of what has brought him there. Simon, along with almost everyone else we meet, has little to no ability to remember what has happened to him—not just years before, but even days before. He relies on his "bodymemory" to enable him to function in the physical world, and his "objectmemories"—a bagged assortment of keepsakes and reminders that he carries everywhere with him—to give him a sense of who he is and where he comes from. Those who have for whatever reason been divested of their objectmemories soon join the ranks of the "memorylost," hopeless vagrants who eventually wither away through a lack of any sustainable connection to the world they live in.
What marks out Simon’s world most immediately from our own is the central, non-negotiable importance of music within its hierarchies. Every child here is paired with an instrument as soon as he or she is old enough to learn to play it, and the novel’s language reflects this, replacing some common adjectives and adverbs with synonyms from musical terminology. The day’s routines are structured around matins and vespers, where everything stops for "Chimes," a musical recapitulation of "Onestory," in which this world’s accepted version of history is recounted. We come to learn that Simon’s Britain is governed by the Order, a musical elite based at Oxford, and that the written word, or "code," has long since been banned. But what exactly is Chimes, and what does it do to people? Which came first, Discord, or the Order? The answers to all of these questions will be revealed through the pages of The Chimes, but you might be forgiven for having the feeling you knew most of them already.
The finest and most notable aspect of The Chimes is unquestionably the writing itself. As a classically trained violinist writing about a musical dystopia, Smaill—a published poet—has made every effort to bring the circumstances of her protagonist to life through her use of language. Her success is most evident in the early stages of the novel, where we as readers have not yet gained a full picture of what is going on in the story. The language here is intriguingly fragmented, as is the narrative, a photo-stream of feelings, half-memories, and sensory impressions. Above all, there is music, the guiding principle of Simon’s existence and the one still point amidst the confusion:
I pick up my recorder and I start to play, even though I don’t know how to make the voice that is missing. When I have played all my feeling into the first part of the tune, I still don’t know, but by then it is too late and I no longer care, so I just play it. I play it high and reckless and free so that it flies above all the others. I play it with some of the anger I feel and some that I throw in for extra. I play a voice that has never known anything except for luck and beauty. I don’t know where it comes from, just that it was missing. (pp. 22-23)
These early chapters sketch in a world that is intriguing in its lack of an immediately discernible history and in its seemingly innate musicality. The life of the pact, the mutual loyalty of its members, the instinctive, mysterious existence they scrape out beneath the city’s streets, their insatiable hunt for "the Lady," which we later discover to be the scattered fragments of a kind of doomsday sound-weapon—Smaill paints in these images with a refined touch and a nuanced sensitivity that forms the defining feature of her writing. I enjoyed this first part of her novel very much, especially Simon’s lively account of his underground London:
I hold my breath and go to a crouch and use both hands to sluice through the debris at the grate below. Leaves and old stick-wrap bags, wads of old wet papermoney. Then I lift my hands and hold them out and Clare’s breath makes a small, wondering "Ha!" in the silence. On my palm is a nugget of Pale. About three ounces, and shined with soapy, idle gleam in the thin light, as beautiful as anything I’ve ever seen. It pulses with silence. With a brisk few steps Clare’s next to me and we look at it closer and I give her shoulder a squeeze, in gratitude for her hearing and the glow of her triumph. I slip the Lady into my back jeans pocket and grin. (p. 37)
For me, unfortunately, The Chimes became rapidly less compelling as the story became more defined. As Simon, through Lucien’s encouragement and tutelage, begins to regain his memories, he discovers that his parents and their friends were part of an illicit network of partisans known as Ravensguild, dedicated to preserving memory and the written word, and eventually (who’d have guessed it) to the overthrow of the Order that deemed these things forbidden. Simon’s mother Sarah had a special gift—the ability not just to remember her own past but to access and interpret the memories of others. Sarah was an oral historian, in other words—and Simon is the inheritor of this same ability. Lucien too can retain his memories—but for different reasons.
With Lucien as the privileged dissident, and Simon as the gifted farm boy coming into his inheritance, The Chimes, for all its musical shenanigans, is actually a straightforward re-enactment of any number of classic fairytales in which rags and riches fall in love against the odds and eventually triumph. As they journey north towards Oxford and their planned destruction of the deadly Carillon, they encounter Mary, the last of the Ravensguild and the keeper of a prophecy foretold:
"What are you talking about?" I ask.
"What they sang in the guild when it all fell down. Grasping at pieces. Trying to put it together again. One to sing and one to tend the plot, it went. One forgetting and the one forgot. One who hears and one who keeps the word. Two will come and join a third." (p. 191)
One ring to bind them all, then. From here, the plot progresses straightforwardly, and dare I say predictably. It would hardly count as posting spoilers to tell you that The Chimes ends more or less word for word as you might expect, with our lovers reunited, the old order toppled, and an uncertain but righteous future just beginning.
The Chimes is a beautifully written tale with some delightfully imaginative worldbuilding and sensitive characterisation. The fact remains though that the readers who enjoy this story most fully will be those (most likely younger) readers who haven’t already encountered it somewhere before. I’m sure that if I were sixteen again, an age when I avidly gobbled any and every political dystopia I could lay my hands on and with my particular interest in music I would adore the hell out of this book. And yet Smaill’s publisher, Sceptre, have chosen to market The Chimes as adult fiction. Perhaps the book’s editors count Smaill’s linguistic gifts as adequate recompense. Perhaps they are so unfamiliar with the novel’s hundreds of science fictional forebears that they were unable to recognise her story as the unoriginal and unchallenging, over-simplistic thing it is. Did they encourage Smaill to streamline the ambiguities of her first sixty pages into a classic-dystopic Hero’s Journey? If they did, then I wish they hadn’t. A fully realised and more emotionally and morally complicated playing out of The Chimes’s compelling opening act—a book I am sure Smaill is more than capable of writing—would have been better appreciated, at least by me.
In mainstream literature, an author’s first novel is often some sort of coming-of-age story—finding oneself at university, escaping a difficult or oppressive family background, falling in with the wrong crowd and eventually falling out again. There are a lot of these books about, and one of the unwritten laws of embarking on writing this kind of first novel states that yours has to be pretty damned special to escape the critical accusation of retreading old ground. Reading The Chimes has caused me to wonder whether we’ve now reached the lamentable point in science fiction where any literary writer essaying the genre for the first time feels they have to cut their teeth on this kind of warmed-over "soft" dystopia.
Are these writers significantly behind with contemporary developments in speculative fiction, or is this the only kind of science fiction mainstream literary editors feel that a wider public can cope with? Certainly we’ve encountered plenty of novels like The Chimes, even in the past few years—The Dog Stars, Memory of Water, The Age of Miracles, California to name but a few—all similarly predictable, all similarly anodyne. The temptations of the form are obvious: your basic story outline is ready and waiting. As the writer, your main task is to map out the particular rules for "your" apocalypse or repressive regime. I don’t mean to suggest that the dystopian subgenre is bankrupt in every department, just that the rules for literary coming-of-age stories should apply here, also: if you’re going to write a dystopia, be aware of how over-exemplified the form is already. Your story has to be different, and pretty special, to survive.
Nina Allan's stories have appeared in many anthologies, including Best British Fantasy 2014, Solaris Rising 3, and The Mammoth Book of Ghost Stories by Women. Her novella Spin, a reimagining of the Arachne myth, won the British Science Fiction Award in 2014, and her collection The Silver Wind, a story-cycle on themes of time and memory, won the Grand Prix de L'Imaginaire in the same year. Her debut novel The Race, set in an alternate future England and featuring bio-engineered greyhounds and island-sized whales, was published in 2014 by NewCon Press. She lives and works in North Devon.
You must log in to post a comment.