Chimera ... less than the sum of its parts.
Recently finished this SF novel by Alice Thompson, the first time I've encountered her work. I had high expectations for this book, knowing the quality of some of the other authors that Salt have previously published, including the likes of Nicholas Royle, V.H. Leslie, and Seán Padraic Birnie. It was Salt who published one of the most original story collections of recent years, Andrew Hook's snapshots of the abbreviated lives of famous Hollywood casulaties, Candescent Blooms (see my review here). Thompson has published seven previous novels, including the James Tait Black Memorial prize for fiction for her debut novel, Justine. It came as a something of a disappointment then, to find myself so underwhelmed with Chimera, despite its ambition. I don't know if this is Thompson's first foray into science fiction, but it's impossible to avoid the impression that that is the case, particularly given the naive abandon with which Thompson tosses around SF cliches so worn out their appearance here comes as a surprise. "The ship was travelling through the sky faster than the speed of light," we're told early on, as if FTLT is just around the corner, rather than being a fantasy more associated with far future space opera, rather than the near future setting the narrative's contemporary concerns seem to imply. These include the threat of imminent ecological collapse--the trigger for the space mission which forms the bulk of the story, a preoccupation with the dangers of AI, and a more muted allusion to the detrimental affect of social media, the latter mentioned early on, before being largely ignored.
Although the plot is, on the face of things, fairly straightforward, its borrowings from and clumsy deployment of overfamiliar SF tropes, as well as its failure to explicate its ideas and themes, make Chimera an aggravating read. The ship Chimera is sent on a mission to Oneiros, one of three moons orbiting some far distant planet. The fate of a previous mission, the Siren, sent to search for a carbon-consuming bacteria--in the hope that it could be brought back to earth to reverse the worst effects of climate change--remains a mystery. A frame narrative posits that the novel Chimera is an attempt by Artemis, the protagonist and only survivor of the second mission to return to earth, to recover her memories and make sense of what happened. From the outset, Artemis is the only one of the five human crew aware of the truth that nobody from the Siren (the original mission) returned to earth, She is a dream specialist whose purpose is, ostensibly to monitor the crew who have been given dream suppressing drugs, because dreams and imagination seemingly hinder the practical, pragmatic way of thinking and behaving necessary for coping with the stresses of deep space flight.
Accompanying the human crew are twelve synthetic humanoids, here called Dryads, who take care of the more mundane tasks involved in keeping the ship functioning. A heating mafunction causes some initial concern before being recitified, but things become more alarming when Ivan, the lead researcher into the mysterious bacteria, disappears. Despite the cliches, and a peculiar stiltedness in Thompson's writing, the narrative up to this point, with its unsettling air of unreality, seemed to be working towards an interesting exploration of the psychological impact of both deep space travel and interaction with artificial intelligence, on its human crew. Artemis' motivation for joining the mission is hazy, and the choices she makes on board the Chimera, and on Oneiros, seem contingent and lacking in conscious purpose. I guess this was a deliberate decision on Thompson's part, to impart an hallucinatory or dreamlike quality, where nothing is really as it appears to be, and were the novel's structure more sound, then it might have worked. But unfortunately, the fundamentals that underpin the narrative are so flimsy and arbitrary, the whole thing collapses in on itself. Throughout the novel there are allusions, some more obvious than others, to other canonical texts, including Bladerunner and Alien, Silent Running and Ex Machina among others, but, in reminding the viewer of the visionary power of these works, they serve only to draw attention to Chimera's incoherence and lack of new ideas.
Scattered throughout the novel are quotations from various scientists, philosphers and poets, each with a footnote indicating its source--from Einstein to Shakespeare, and from Francis Bacon to Lao Tzu. Thompson puts these profound epithets in the mouths of her characters, but to what purpose? To signal their literariness? Their imagination? Doesn't this contradict the notion of the crew, excepting Artemis, being selected for the mission precisely because of their dull pragmatism, their inability to dream? Although there is a suggestion of irony at work here, ultimately the use of these references is an unnecessary distraction. They might have worked coming from Troy, the most advanced and self-aware of the Dryads. Sometimes his quotations seem to suggest his attempt to comprehend his evolving consciousness and humanity. His interactions with Artemis--and the extent to which they both share, perhaps unconsciously on her part, an ulterior motive--lie at the heart of the book, and are it's most intriguing, if not fully realised, aspect.
Another, more fundamental problem is Thompson's unwillingess to let go a particular image, as when she describes the ships interior being "lined with rows of computer banks and wiring like a spider's web spun throughout the room." In the very next sentence, we're reminded that the "lower part fo the ship held banks of computers gleaming in the dark." I think we get it--there are a lot of computers on board the Chimera. Sometimes, the effect of the initial metaphor is blunted by qualification and repetition, as happens when Artemis associates the "smell of the past" with "long summer grass", only to overdo it by comparing being in the grass to an abyss, a "pitch blackness," and a "consuming darkness." The notion of an encroaching blackness, one that suffocates consciouness and erases individual identity is a recurring one, but Thompson repeats it to the extent that instead of conveying oblivion or despair, which I guess was the intention, you begin to think her colour palette is somewhat lacking.
There's also something curiously stilted in the way her characters speak. Their sentences are at times overly-formal, devoid of contractions or distinctive dialect or slang. All the crew speak in the same emotionless tone, and though this may be intentional, with Thompson wanting to convey their dulled imaginations (a result of not dreaming) , it adds a turgidness to her sentences. Another passage has Artemis enter the room where the Dryads lay in their sleeping capsules after being switched off (who switched them off, and why do they need to lay in capsules?), where she watches "Troy's face asleep shut beneath the transparent glass of the capsule," only for the author to labour the point as to whether, in that state, he is closer to death than sleep. There are numerous typos which should have been picked up, but ultimately the novel's weaknesses are more deeply entwined with the disconnect between Thompson's ambition and her failure to make the disparate themes and ideas cohere.
Chimera, by Alice Thompson (Salt, pp. 178, £10.99).