Though slender, this volume is far from anorexic. It has a lapidary density; there is a weighty complexity to these stories that lingers in the mind. Rosaleen Love produces pieces that are intensely flavoured reductions of her material. Her themes are pressed down like the tons of rose petals that are condensed into a single ounce of precious attar. I’m struggling here, it’s probably apparent, to find a metaphor for the multum in parvo effect of The Traveling Tide. Several of the stories have a temporal sweep and authorial perspective that can only be called Stapledonian: but Love coils Stapledon’s cosmic vision neatly into a walnut shell, like one of those fine and precious fairytale fabrics that can fit into a tiny space yet expand into practically an entire wardrobe. Paragraphs, even single lines, make one think ‘Gosh, somebody else would have produced a bloated novel or even a trilogy there!’ while leaving the possible ramifications as an exercise for the reader.
The stories collected in The Traveling Tide cover a range of modes and styles. In several, Australia is a tangible presence. Too many fat fantasies by Australasian writers seem to be endlessly reworking the stock northern European tropes with which we are all too familiar (Tough Guide to Fantasyland territory), but Love’s narratives are rooted in the antipodean landscape, its geology and deep time, the scars of its history: ‘the land for which so much blood has been spilt, over and over again, without much point to it’; ‘The stories go on and on and never stop’. She even, in ‘In the Shadow of the Stones,’ resituates Greek myth in the Australian present: ‘‘Queenie wears a cap indoors, outdoors, day and night. ‘I can never do anything with my hair,’ Queenie tells Rachel.’’
Rocks, geology, and coral reefs feature, long sweeps of time pass, ice advances and recedes, land emerges from sea and sea returns. All is flux, though often on a scale that humanity is unable to perceive:
...it may be that measurements taken over a mere one hundred years can tell something, but not enough. The last 10,000 years may show an upward trend of destruction, but what then? Change happens: take the very long-term view, and there are always variations, so that the present fluctuations in the seasons are as nothing compared with the changes wrought by the coming and going of the glaciers, with their great sheets of glittering reflective ice.
Humanity appears as bubbles in the cosmic saucepan, no more (and no less) interesting than ‘‘the GoGo placoderms, lords of our patch of the Devonian reef’’ or than the coral polyps whose ‘‘C(h)oral Songs' are the subject of a witty tribute to Ursula Le Guin and her ‘‘science of therolinguistics.’’ This is a playful fantasia on trends in literary criticism, nodding to postmodernism, post-colonialism, Derrida, and constantly emphasising the ‘‘slippery, permeable, indefinable’’ nature of the corals. Embedded in this jeu d’esprit—playful about that determined scholarly playfulness—is a vision of estrangement:
Take one reader, shake well, and suspend in ocean, feet first, snorkel firmly gripped in mouth. Lower until reader encounters coral text. Sense of radical otherness well-affirmed: reader breathes air while corals wave in water. Note undermining of claims to a privileged existence. Reader is scared half-crazy, wondering if air will keep coming down the pipe. Extraneous texts intrude. Is that a shark down there in the shadows?
The humans are there, but simply as episodes in this larger drama. But even in these huge cosmic dramas in which change is the only certainty, there are continuities, recurrences, connections: the rock pinnacles ‘‘marching underground all the way to Perth,’’ Perth as a future flooded ‘‘Venice of the Antipodes,’’ the placoderms returning from the ‘‘non-event’’ of the Permian mass-extinction, the ‘‘capacity of the human mind to adapt, to understand’’ as new knowledge replaces the old.
The perspective is vast, but Love can also command a more intimate register. ‘In Tribulation and with Jubilee: On Pilgrimage with Bridie King’ is a picaresque tale told in email about a road trip to New Orleans with ‘‘my cousin Bridie ... Sydney rhythm-and-blues legend’’ on a pilgrimage ‘‘to the source of her music.’’ (This story contains the sadly prophetic lines ‘‘I am glad I got to see New Orleans while it is still there. One day, and soonish, water will cover it.’’) The pilgrimage is marked by miraculous events, the first of which is the comfortable longhaul flight on a half-empty plane, followed by serendipitous meetings with music and history, though there are also the difficulties and obstacles necessary to a ‘real pilgrimage.’ It’s poised right on the boundary between magic and realism; an elegant feat of balance.
After reading ‘Alexander’s Feats,’ I am almost convinced that there is somewhere in the world’s literature a cycle of stories about Alexander the Great as Great Man of Science (true heir to Aristotle). Perhaps something in an Arabian Nights style, that Love has wittily re-visioned from the point of view of the Great Man of Science’s long-suffering wife: possibly also a myth-cycle in which Roxanne is more of a player than she usually figures as in the Alexander mythos (lost gems of Sogdian oral literature, perhaps?). ‘Alexander’s Feats’ has the air of performing unexpected and subversive riffs on existing well-known tales: ‘‘Of Roxanne, his wife, not so many tales have been told, which is the point of the present chronicle.’’
Overall, this is a volume that offers infinite riches in a little room, and a book that resonates effectively with the agenda of the Aqueduct Press Conversation Pieces Series in which it appears: feminist SF as ‘‘an ever-shifting, fluid mosaic, the individual tiles of which we will probably only ever partially access.’’