The world is running down. The last of humanity is clustered round the toxic puddle that is all that remains of the Pacific, eking out an existence with the help of a magical technology called the harmonium. The massively swollen Sun now dominates the sky, earning it the title Day God. Unique amongst the world's dwindling population is Liaei, the Queen Of The Hourglass. She is the last of what we would consider true humans:
"I am fertile and disgusting, and soon—any day now—I will bleed on a regular basis." (p. 17)
In contrast to this everyone else in Vera Nazarian's far-future novella is a particularly dull form of post-human: bald, flat, and sexless. Much the same can be said of their speech. It has a ponderous and precise quality that makes it both artificial and tedious. It is not until page 77 that the first hint of slang or colour enters the dialogue and that is a bobbysocksy exclamation of "Neat!" from our protagonist. The sterility of the language might be intended to mirror the sterility of the society but the post humans actually have a vibrant visual and physical culture. In the end it just seems like Nazarian isn't very good at dialogue.
The Queen of the Hourglass has been bred for the sole purpose of mating with the Clock King. By producing a child in the old fashioned way she will replenish the genetic stock needed to sustain her society. However, whilst she is her society's saviour (the only Queen who has made it to term in 130 years) she views herself as a freak. Unlike most teenagers she actually has a legitimate grievance when she says that no-one on Earth understands her. Not only is she a slave to her hormones, she is the only such slave. How much harder would it be to deal with puberty when you are the only women on Earth who menstruates? When Judy Bloom and doctors and nurses have been replaced by a pseudo-AI encyclopaedia of half-remembered history?
Nazarian's prose is by no means exceptional—early on she describes Liaei's features as "malleable" three times in five pages—and as with the dialogue this often gives the impression that Nazarian has trouble finding the right word. However, it is perfectly adequate to produce a strong coming-of-age story. The power of the novella comes from Liaei's isolation, and Nazarian is good at capturing the chasm that exists between her and her peers. This is exemplified in a scene where she first acts on her sexual desire. Naturally this is directed towards one of her friends, Toliwe, rather than at an image from a screen of a long-ago creature she has never met. As a post-human, though, Toliwe is incapable of reciprocating:
"The physical excitement is so faint, that it's like an echo .... A shadow of desire." (p. 56)
Instead Liaei has a pre-ordained outlet for her desire. She has been brought up to believe that the climax of her life is her ritualised copulation with the Clock King, as soon as she is physiologically able to conceive. This should also be the climax of the novella. The appearance of the Clock King himself throws a bit of a spanner into the works, though. Unaccountably Nazarian gives him a brief viewpoint chapter, despite the fact he appears far too late in the novella for the reader to have much engagement with him. This throws the structure out of joint. Even worse he is less a character than avatar of Time (which is a more polite way of saying direct authorial intervention.) If his only function in society is to impregnate the Queen of the Hourglass, his only function in the novella is to impart information to Liaei about The River That Flows Through The Air.
Their much anticipated meeting is well drawn by Nazarian. It is anticlimactic in the way loss of virginity often is: the Queen awkward and dutiful, the King ambivalent and disinterested, their union uncomfortable and, in the end, futile. It is a fitting end for a novella about a barren and impotent society. Yet this scene ends up being foreplay for Nazarian's seemingly deeper interest in The River (which, the acknowledgements make clear, was the imaginative motiviation from the beginning.) The River That Flows Through The Air is a vast body leading from ocean to land suspended above the ground by some unknown harmonium technology. Nazarian has latched onto it as an image of great resonance—which it isn't, for this reader at least—and having foreshadowed some revelation throughout the novella finally, and ponderously, delivers it in the final pages.
When Nazarian expands the story's horizons from the personal to the philosophical, she bursts the novella's framework, causing it to collapse. Earlier in the novella Liaei ponders of animals that:
"in all our wisdom and profundity of logic and thought we never did learn to properly value ... those wonderous true aliens on our own planet, for their own sake" (p. 67)
This is all well and good but rather vague. Whenever Nazarian moves from Liaei's concrete experience to this sort of idle pontificating the story suffers. Limited in its possible scope, a novella can only really have one focus. Unfortunately The Clock King And The Queen Of The Hourglass has two—a major and a minor—acting almost in opposition. The wider perspective the revelation of The River grants Liaei actually diminishes her achievements. While Liaei's story is worth telling, The River's is not and the two are not as inextricably linked as the author believes.
Martin Lewis lives in East London. His reviews have appeared in Vector, The SF Site, The Alien Online and Interzone. In this bio he tried to strike a balance between being too cute and being too boring. He failed.