Belius is a minotaur. He lives in the Wider World, where animals communicate with and accept one another (but still eat each other according to the requirements of nature). But he was born in the lesser world, the world of men. And he suffers from a deep spiritual malaise, which he has been trying to remedy by devising a cosmology for the Wider World. It hasn’t helped much.
The twin stories of Belius’s search for a remedy and the events that led him to leave the lesser world form the core of Ford’s novella (though technically its length exceeds the Hugo definition for that form), which lurks behind an eye-catching cover by underground comics artist Kim Deitch. This cover successfully conveys a sense that The Cosmology of the Wider World is not quite what you might expect, whatever preconceptions you may have brought with you, whether of the SF ghetto or the mainstream.
Jeff VanderMeer, in an introduction that perhaps gives away a little too much of what follows, points out that, despite the talking animals, one is not in the world of Disney here. This is true, but it does a disservice to Ford to suggest that he is solely or for the most part reacting against the cuteness of the Disney corporation. What he’s actually doing, or so it seems to me, is working in an entirely different and older tradition, that of the English fantasists, of Lewis Carroll and his more recent continuators, such as Jeff Noon (I originally thought I detected the direct influence of Noon, until I realized that I was being reminded of those elements of Noon’s writing that express his Carroll fixation). The names of Ford’s characters—Pezimote, Vashti, Thip—are particularly reminiscent of Carroll. Ford himself cites Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. To this mix Ford brings a touch of the magic realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the ability to treat the fantastic nature (at least to the reader) of the Wider World as commonplace, to convey the sense that what happens there does not seem strange, but everyday, to its inhabitants. It’s the way the Wider World is.
In these forms Ford clothes what is almost a morality tale about the power of literature and the act of creation. Though the animals are important players, the most significant relationship is that between Belius and his literary work, the eponymous Cosmology, which becomes another character in the story, literally. It is the resolution of tensions within that relationship that provides the resolution for the novella. The apparent abruptness, in some aspects, of that resolution is explained by Ford’s revelation (on Infinity Plus) that Cosmology is actually only the beginning of a much longer and as yet unfinished novel (Ford asserts that a second installment at least will be published). But to be honest, the story is complete in itself, and it’s not clear what more a longer work could add.
There is, almost inevitably, a mythic dimension. But not quite how one might expect. Yes, Belius is a minotaur, and Ford does explore what that might mean to his family and those around him. One might interpret the libraries that Belius buries himself in as an intellectual labyrinth. But there is another classical myth buried more deeply in the structure of the work than that of the Minotaur. To reveal what this is would reveal too much about the novel’s plot. Suffice it to say that Ford handles this much-treated myth in a fresh and original manner.
Unusual, red of claw, and, at 173 pages, refreshingly short, The Cosmology of the Wider World is a charming divertissement that should appeal both to the regular SF audience and to those who enjoy the fantastic but affect not to.
Tony Keen moonlights as an academic and critic, when not earning a crust. His chapter on Jeff Noon’s Vurt is forthcoming in Paul Kincaid (ed.), The Arthur C. Clarke Award: A Critical Collection.