Cold Iron & Rowan-Wood

November 13, 2010

Gwyneth Lewis – The Meat Tree

Filed under: review,sf — Tags: , , , , , , , , — Sam @ 4:44 pm

Seren Books, 2010—part of the “New Stories from the Mabinogion” series. Paperback, 256 pp., £7.99.

The Mabinogion is the mediaeval Welsh myth cycle; it comprises the Four Branches themselves; the four native tales; and three romances. There are several English translations available online, linked from the Wikipedia page above, and they’re well worth reading. You don’t need any familiarity with the original to read this, and I’d be really interested in hearing from someone who came to the story fresh with this version. For me, it’s in my blood & bone; I read it in English and in Welsh before I was fifteen, living in the same green valleys where it’s set, so when I was reading this I had the ghosts of a half-dozen different versions reading over my shoulder.

The Meat Tree is a version of the Fourth Branch, called in most translations “Math son of Mathonwy”; here it’s “Blodeuwedd” after the woman made from flowers to be Lleu’s bride, and Lewis’s narrative moves away from the traditional masculine-centred tale of magic and war towards a story centred on relationships—sexual & familial, through love, hatred, resentment, and obligation—and on what it means to be a flower and what it means to be meat. Gwydion and Gilfaethwy’s journey to Annwn, and the War of the Pigs, is passed over in a paragraph, but we hear a lot from Blodeuwedd herself and from Aranrhod. None of the women are given much page time in the original, and are mostly positioned as villains, victims, or (usually) both, so this is a good change.

Trigger warning: the myth deals with rape and incest, and this version doesn’t sugar-coat it.

The framing story is explicitly science-fictional, with two people going to board an unknown derelict near Mars. Campion is an Inspector of Wrecks, a fussy old man nearing retirement who sublimates himself in his work; Nona is an up-and-coming young student, sent out for some practical experience. The wreck looks like an old-time Earth ship, but it’s come from entirely the wrong direction; that’s the first mystery we see, and the story keeps circling back to it.

Inside, there are no bodies, and nothing in the logs to indicate what happened. There’s a clunky old VR immersion unit, though, and our protagonists decide to experience it in order to reconstruct what was important, what the crew valued, what might have happened.

The whole book is told through the crew logs; we open with the Inspector of Wrecks, in his distinctive (and very Welsh) narrative voice.

Is that working now, I wonder? I hate these thought recorders. They’re good in very confined spaces, where you don’t want to overhear the idiotic things your colleagues say to their families back on Mars, but I think they’re overrated. But, there we are, I’m Old School. The trick is to keep the unconscious out of it as much as possible and pretend that you’re talking to yourself.

We alternate between his narrative, Nona’s, and the shared channel they use when exploring the wreck and in the VR environment. The VR sessions themselves are done at a remove, because all we have is the log, with the two of them discussing what’s happening and trying to analyse both the story and the game system—the story behind the story.

Lewis is an extremely accomplished poet (Torchwood viewers will know her work through the inscription on the Wales Millennium Centre, Creu Gwir Fel Gwydr O Ffwrnais Awen) and she uses the myth to examine ideas about storytelling, imagination, and the writer’s process. More than that, though, the story is about itself, about this Welsh national myth, with its tricks and transformations and the struggle to claim independent selfhood. It has a great deal more in it, but in the end, it’s mythlore; it has a whole peoples’ world in it, and there are a great many perspectives on it.

Science-fictionally, it works well; the framing plot is an interesting twist on the old “something comes from outer space, and it’s not what it seems” plot so popular in Golden Age SF, and both the story-within-a-story and the game-that’s-more-than-a-game have been used to good effect recently as well. (I’m thinking of The Habitation of the Blessed, and Stross’s Halting State, respectively—though that’s the only similarity with the latter.)

The only issue I have with Lewis’s SF writing is that her explanations of her future technology are occasionally a little clunky.

Inspector of Wrecks: No, it can’t be. I’ve heard old-timers talking about something like this, but I’ve never seen one. I think it’s something called an audio-cassette player. There’s even a tape in it. Early personal entertainment system.
Apprentice: You’re kidding, when technology was still outside the body? That’s hilarious.
Inspector of Wrecks: See those couches? I bet they’re old VR systems.
Apprentice: VR?
Inspector of Wrecks: Virtual Reality. Before you swallowed the nano-synaptic dream tablets for training and recreation.

The formatting is from the book there, incidentally—the whole thing is written in the style of a play script, and I’d love to hear a radio play á la Under Milk Wood. Her characterization is amazingly expressive; the Inspector of Wrecks came fully formed from his first words. Nona was less real for me, but I think that’s at least as much because I have more trouble empathizing with her.

Overall, I recommend this highly; it’s very accessible poetic criticism, it’s a new (and woman-centred) take on the mediaeval myth, and it’s good SF.

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