I decided to spend today re-reading Ian Watson’s “Books of the Black Current“.
What a strange little trilogy. It starts out feeling like some kind of riff on familiar territory – an alien world where humanity lives along the banks of a single river, surrounded by desert, with a weird current of thick black goop down the center which drives you suicidally crazy if you try to cross it, and will drive any man who gets on the river suicidally crazy the second time he tries to take a boat ride; one side is run by a guild of Riverwomen, the other side is run by a bunch of misogynists who stay away from the river and burn any woman who tries to get on it. Then after turning this world upside down over the two hundred or so pages of the first book, the second sees the narrator dead and in the mystic service of the sentient, serpentine Black Current, which sends her soul to Earth, to be reborn as a permanantly-nine-year-old girl who fights against the “Godmind” (probably a semi-transcendent computer) that seeded humanity out in the stars and plans to eventually use its psychic link to all of humanity to kill everyone at once so it can seek Pure Enlightenment. She gets sent to Lunar Prison and blows herself up along with the Godmind’s lunar rose garden. Somewhere along the way I began to suspect I was reading a Satanist parable.
And then in the third book it gets weird. The heroine time loops herself, wanders around trying to get the people of her world to link themselves to the Current so they can’t be destroyed by the Godmind, and trying to get them to care about the impossible task of saving the rest of the galaxy as well. The ending is basically about the same as the last few pages of my Decrypting Rita except in text. And with more rose imagery.
All of this in three books of about 250 pages each. I feel like nowadays the modern SF/F market would demand that each of these books be about 600 pages, follow the exploits of about a dozen vaguely-connected characters, spawn a fan wiki, and dissolve into a vague smear of unfinishedness instead of quite decisively grasping the impossibility of the task laid before the heroine, finding an excuse to shatter into an infinite number of possible worlds a little before the Godmind destroys the universe, and ending with an in-world historians’s note that basically calls half of the last volume fanfic of the first two.
They do not write ’em like this any more. Or if they do I sure am not running into them.
I dunno if it’s exactly “good”; there’s not much time for much character development or more than vague sketches of secondary characters. It’s all about sketching out the shape of a world bent by this big weird idea running down its middle, then abandoning that for a bunch of even crazier ideas. Really this is a pretty good example of what people mean when they call SF “a literature of ideas”. I remember enjoying this when I read it in the eighties, and I still enjoyed it now.
But now I think I’m gonna meditate and go to sleep because I sure did cram a lot of crazy stuff into my head rapidly today.