Bull, Emma -- Falcon [re-read]

I recently read a post on the structure of this early Emma Bull SF novel; I was inspired to pick it back up for a re-read. (Thank you, ye-who.)

A couple of years ago I re-read John M. Ford's The Princes of the Air, and found that it was the book that I always mix up with Falcon. Returning to Falcon, I realize how very much it is a love letter to Ford. One can trace any number of plot elements and themes back to Ford's SF novels, Princes... and Web of Angels (both published in the decade leading up to Falcon). Spies, government plots, mind-altering poisons, the long con, passionate art, the grind of history, people being deeply human. The style, too, follows Ford: allusive, elliptical... haunted, I want to say. Not at all how I remember Bull's first novel, War for the Oaks (though I have not revisited that in years).

Falcon is two short novels, welded together. First: a young Niki Glyndwr, aristocratic scion and casual rakehell, returns from vacation to find a political crisis catching fire on his culturally-Welsh home planet. He grows up, or tries to, or tries at least to save something; he fails. And second: an older Niki, fled from the wreckage and his name, has volunteered for one of those experimental projects that lets pilots navigate hyperspace, while killing them slowly and romantically. (You know the type.) Having lived just long enough to recreate a life for himself, Niki now runs into the reality of his slow-motion suicide gesture while tangled in an interplanetary thriller plot.

Part one is narrated by Niki, tight third person. Part two is introduced by Jhari Sabayan (government agent), and then Chrysander Harris (musician and vid-artist), two of the people whose lives collide with Niki's. The bulk of part two rotates between Chrysander's narration and Niki's (third-person), with interludes from Jhari (first-person, future-framed).

First lemme say -- for those of you who have not read Falcon and clicked this link expecting a book review -- Falcon is an excellent (somewhat 80s, very emo) SF novel. You should read it. Then read Emma Bull's other novels (sadly few in number). Then read all of John M. Ford, because I have to say things like that. Okay?

So, back to the structure.

I get the time gap. The gap is necessary. Maybe it's my narrative biases, or the perversion of a lifetime in game design, or just "that's the way Ford does it", but I am a sucker for storytelling between the lines. Even if the lines are ten years and an emotional lifetime apart. We don't need to see Niki's despair, his desire for extinction, or the road that led him to the gestalt-pilot program. It's all drawn in by a few well-sketched reminisces and the reality of Niki ten years on. Nothing is missing here. Besides, Niki is way more interesting ten years on. A man who's picked up a few threads and is gripping them -- in the face of death -- has way more to say than an emo twenty-year-old.

(The novel has more gaps than I'm describing. Notably, when part two begins, we get Jhari's first-person narration -- but not her name. It is another chapter before we are introduced to Jhari Sabayan, and a few more before it becomes (indirectly) clear that she is the nameless framer of the (half-) story. The ending of the book then ties together all sorts of threads that, in retrospect, we didn't even know were dangling. In this model, putting ten years in the rear-view mirror is just another bounce.)

The real question, to me, is: why give Niki's viewpoint at all in part two? If you're going for the bold gesture, go for it: show him entirely from the outside. It should be possible; I don't think there's anything there that requires his internality. You'd have to rejigger the plot to balance Chrysander with more Jhari, is all. (Maybe run Jhari both in third-person and first-person.)

(The book needs more Jhari, anyhow. We mostly see her having a mad crush on Niki and then being angry at him. We know she has as much history as him, because calendar; but it's not sketched in the same way. So she comes off as a bit of a reflecting mirror.)

Presenting Niki from the external view will dehumanize or deify him -- but come on, the book does that anyhow. The narrative (in Jhari's voice) isn't shy about destiny, teleology, and power chords as the camera pulls back on the gulfs of space. Note: I can visualize this cinematography because I have the same defiantly adolescent tastes in storytelling. No apologies. My point is, again, if the book is going to go there, it should wear the tights.

Well, we do not have the book I'm making up; we have the book Bull wrote. I am satisfied with it. It is over-the-top in some ways, confidently experimental in others, genre-aware and genre-unashamed -- a mode that I associate with the Minnesota Scribblies group of the era -- a style that might have been called the Second New Wave if it had sparked more widely. (Instead we just say "Wow, Steven Brust, he's awesome. Gene Wolfe, he's awesome. Iain Banks, okay, not from Minnesota, but awesome. Pamela Dean..." and so on. And then turn around to stare at cyberpunk and the new-hard-SF of the following decades.)

Zarf says: read, and then read its context.

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