The first thing I ever read by Leonard Richardson was a short story, “Four Kinds of Cargo,” published here at Strange Horizons in 2012. It was an intriguing mix of mordant humor, space opera, terrible events, and cool aliens. Situation Normal, Richardson’s second novel, is all of that turned up to eleven.
Situation Normal kicks off with the smugglers from “Four Kinds of Cargo” landing on the planet of Cedar Commons in their ship, the Sour Candy. Cedar Commons is a “resource planet,” which is to say a world owned by a brand and used to grow timber. What’s a brand? Good question! Richardson never explains anything, simply dropping his readers into a fully developed and wildly careening universe. He doesn’t tell us what “brands” might be, and piecing together the clues to figure them out is one of the pleasures of the novel.
However, the best part and the true heart of Richardson’s novel lies in three plot strands that connect thematically and converge brilliantly in the novel’s climatic scene. The first is Evidence, the drug that allows individuals to share experiences—religious experiences, historical experiences, everyday experiences (what it is like to be a woodworker, for instance). Sharing these experiences, emotionally as well as intellectually, changes what people believe, how they think, and how they act; it changes who they are, on a very real level.
The Sour Candy has landed on Cedar Commons to retrieve a stash of Evidence, which they hid on the planet some months earlier. The crew have no idea as to its properties. Becky Twice, who is one of the two humans stationed by the brand on Cedar Commons, is sent to investigate their landing—and when she shows up the ship’s crew press-gang her, partly for fun and partly to keep her from reporting back to her brand.
Amid all this, the ongoing series of wars between the Fist of Joy and the Outreach is heating up yet again, and another ship, this one a city-ship, Jaketown, is about to be conscripted into that war. Jaketown is a ship filled with Uhaltihaxl woodworkers, on their way to Cedar Commons. (The Uhaltihaxl are a sort of alien.) To avoid being conscripted by the Outreach military, the governors of Jaketown crash it on Cedar Commons. Now it isn’t a ship. Now it’s a town. And a space navy has no use for a town.
Meanwhile, the ship that had intended to conscript Jaketown is miffed. This ship is called Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. In a fit of pique, its captain decides that, since they can’t have Jaketown, they will instead conscript the children of Jaketown’s governors, a highly illegal act. Myrus, a fifteen year old Uhaltihaxl, is one of the kids that gets taken.
Meanwhile (there are a lot of meanwhiles in this plot), the Sour Candy runs for it, lighting out for Fist of Joy space to sell the cache of drug they picked up. The shuttle carrying the conscripted children is heading for Brown, but when Sour Candy “skips” (a way of moving through space in which one bubble of space swaps places with another chunk, lightyears away), the shuttle is caught up in the ship’s bubble, and skips too. Now they are all in Fist of Joy space, which, since the shuttle from Brown is an Outreach vessel, means they are in enemy territory.
Churryhoof, the soldier in command of the shuttle, decides to pretend the children are prisoners, since prisoners of Outreach will be better treated than child soldiers. Once the shuttle is captured, Churryhoof’s plan works well: Fist of Joy sends the kids, including Myrus, to a youth festival, which is being filmed as a reality (propaganda) show by the Fist.
Meanwhile, on Sour Candy, the Captain needs to find out what Evidence does, and persuades Becky Twice to take some. Becky falls into a hallucination, in which she meets Jesus. Sadly, Jesus misgenders her, which kicks her out of the hallucination; and the real function of Evidence, which is to change the hearts and minds of those who take it, fails, at least on Becky. But when the crew of Sour Candy meet with a drug dealer in Fist territory to sell him their Evidence, the drug dealer’s test subject takes the drug and is transformed—he gives up crime and becomes a follower of Evidence-Jesus.
Meanwhile, at the Fist of Joy Youth Festival, Myrus meets an old human named Starbottle, who turns out to be the scientist who is developing Evidence. The chemical that makes Evidence work, we learn, comes from a plant grown on Quennet. Quennet is famous for a culture known as Cametrean. This is the second plot strand. The Cametrean culture cosplays a series about Cametre, a space opera; except their cosplay is more like a religion. Theirs is a culture that has been so affected by a series of science fiction novels that they have built their entire society around a love of, and fierce adherence to, those volumes. These books, now sacred texts, have literally changed their world. In order to maintain the illusion necessary for the cosplay/religion, Cametreans take syncweed, which gives them shared hallucinations.
Starbottle, it turns out, has used the active chemical in Cametrean syncweed to genemod cows that produce the chemical now known as Evidence in their milk. Now Starbottle is creating varieties of Evidence that work on all the various species (human and alien) in the Fist/Outreach universe. His aim is to end violence by using Evidence to install empathy in those who take it—they will experience one another’s lives and ethical systems, and thus be unable and unwilling to harm one another. Outreach and the Fist, however, want to use Evidence more directly. They want to create non-violent enemies—which is to say, soldiers who won’t fight, thus ensuring a swift and easy victory.
Yes, this is very complicated! And I’ve left a whole lot out, all of it delicious. For instance, there’s quite a bit of really hot cross-species sex in this novel, much of it queer. (And by really hot, I mean really hot.) And the entire book, even the parts that are horrifying, is very funny. Also, Richardson never settles for easy answers—we start out, for instance, believing that the Outreach is, if not good, at least better than Fist of Joy—because, in the territory held by Fist of Joy, slavery is legal, which is not the case in the Outreach. But as we move through the book, we become less and less certain that any of this is true. For one thing, life in Outreach is controlled almost entirely by the “brands”: these track people’s eye movements when they read, for instance, to see which parts of a book interest them the most; the brands decide what people can buy or eat; the brands decide the laws. People in Outreach territory, in other words, are more or less enslaved by brands. This is done through marketing, rather than violence, true, but very possibly the very non-violence makes the enslavement more insidious.
In many novels, this conceit alone would carry the weight of the plot. In Situation Normal, there is no need to focus on one iteration of the theme when it is possible to have several. This commitment to polyphony is made most obvious when the reader is introduced to the final plot strand: the rre. The rre are a species of intelligent beings who create communal minds by grafting one mind to another. Thus Dwap-Dac-Jac (a being made up of Dwap and Dac and Jac) grafts with Tai, and becomes Dwap-Dac-Jac-Tai. The communal being can also split apart again—become Dwap-Jac, and Dac-Tai, or whatever. And each of these beings has grafted with and split from any number of other rre throughout their (apparently immortal) lives.
That’s not the interesting part, though I’ll admit that is interesting. The interesting part is that the rre evolved as parasites. Though they mostly live in exosuits these days, they can and do “ride” anything with a central nervous system: humans, for instance, or the giant lizard/dinosaurs on Quennet. On their planet of origin, they “rode” a herbivore known as the rwit:
Most intelligent races descended from predator stock, but rre were the only parasites. The first human visitors to their world believed they’d made contact with the rwit, an intelligent race of gentle, furry quadrupeds. They were disappointed to learn they’d been communicating with worms wrapped around the quadrupeds’ brainstems. (p. 142)
The rre can and do share memories with one another. As with Evidence, these are hallucination-like experiences, in which the rre feel and see and understand everything the original rre felt and saw and understood. The foundational memory which every rre shares, and can pass on to other intelligent beings, concerns an epiphany from early in their species’ history, in which a group of elders and two initiates consume the body of a being known as Kesaw:
[…] The other initiate and I are left with the leftovers. Although I have been trained to tolerate pain, they say this will be worse than anything we can imagine. But this is what I asked for. This is adulthood. I lower my grazing head, and at that moment, before my mouth even touches Kesaw’s body, I achieve wisdom. Not from Kesaw’s rre, but through what I can only think of as a divine epiphany.
I am not the rwit. These flat teeth are not my teeth, these dull eyes are not mine. I am the rre, the spinefruit that grows on a rwit. I am a parasite on a dumb animal. That’s why we’re doing this to Kesaw. She’s not even dead. She was inside a rwit that died. Once I look at it this way, everything makes sense. I know why wild rwit stay stupid and docile their whole lives. I understand the trite sayings that once seemed like excuses to ignore the reality of death. I see how Kesaw can “live on through us”. I see how eating her rre “preserves her wisdom”. We’re not eating her; she’s eating us. (pp. 147-148)
This epiphany runs through Richardson’s text: We are not the rwit, the rre understand. Those to whom the rre have passed this memory also understand this. Combined with what we, the readers, come to understand about the Cametrean culture and about Evidence, this produces in us an epiphany of our own: we too are not the rwit. A quotation often misattributed to C. S. Lewis is that we are not bodies occupied by souls; we are souls, who happen to at the moment have bodies. (I am paraphrasing.) This is what Richardson’s novel shows us. We do have bodies, as the rre had the rwit. But everything that matters to us—the shared hallucinations of our stories, our religion, our art—this creates our souls. This is the real part of us, which it rides in our bodies, like the rre rode the rwit. And, just like the rre, this is the part of us that lives forever.
Richardson’s novel is so much fun: it is a hilarious, deeply moving, fast-paced yarn that catches hold of its reader and never lets go. It was a wonderful bonus to find it had something profound to tell us as well.