Date read: 8.8.2013
Book from: Personal collection
To the best of my knowledge, Patricia McKillip has only written three novels of science fiction, all back in the mid-1980’s – the duology beginning with Moon-Flash (1984) and ending with The Moon and the Face, and 1987’s Fool’s Run. All three are out of print, and hence some of the only McKillip works I hadn’t/haven’t yet read, my teenaged obsession with her work having settled to a fond simmer by the time that I was in a position to go OOP-hunting. But the McKillip fangirl of yore emerged from hibernation when a dear friend (with whom my friendship was cemented largely on the basis of our taste in reading – geek pre-teens ahoy!) offered to ship me much of her McKillip collection, including The Moon and the Face, in the course of downsizing her belongings.
Having forgotten that The Moon was the second in the duology, I dove right in. Reading series out of order was standard practice for me when I was younger, since I’d just read whatever volume my dad brought home from the library for me, without regard for chronology. If I liked it, I’d beg him to navigate the mysteries of Interlibrary Loan for me and find its series-companions. Stepping into the midst of an already fraught narrative appealed to my relationship with uncertainty: I like the feeling of being an eager novitiate, working to unravel all that came before with hungry ears and eyes, and lingering equally pleasurably over those mysteries I couldn’t penetrate. (All told, I probably read more series out of order than in, back then.)
Since McKillip often works to appeal to this mode of reading anyway (I think here especially of the densely mystifying opening of the Riddle-Master trilogy), it took me some time to realize that The Moon and the Face was a sequel; it could have worked perfectly well as a stand-alone.
The novel is an elegant fable about homecoming, heritage, and the meeting of cultures. McKillip is very good at writing lovers in separation (thinking again of Morgon and Raederle in the Riddle-Master trilogy), each working intently towards divergent ends. Here, we meet Terje and Kyreol, who previously journeyed out together from a sequestered aboriginal culture, have become integrated into the futuristic world of Domecity, and are now pursuing very different vocations as cultural explorers: Terje has returned to their native Riverworld as an anthropological observer, barred from being seen or otherwise making contact, while Kyreol is trepidatiously preparing for her first offworld expedition. Both meet with unexpected dangers and sorrows, but the narrative moves with implacable gentleness towards reunification on both the personal and cultural levels.
McKillip works here in a significantly pared-back style compared to the trademark baroque or tanglewoodsy dream-impressions of her fantasy work. Freed of many of her more kitschy stylistic tics, like constant worshipful references to characters’ eye colors, what emerges is a style of light, dreaming lucency; it goes down like clear water. I was reminded of some of Ursula LeGuin’s science fiction, particularly “A Fisherman of the Inland Sea,” with which it shares strong emotional and thematic overlap. Certain elements still threaten preciousnesss – principally, McKillip’s complete unwillingness to threaten her main characters with serious physical harm means that long stretches of narrative are devoid of plausible tension, other than the sense of mystery that she excels in cultivating. Still, I felt happily rewarded simply by the elegance of the language and narrative movement, and the gentle humor of the characters’ relationships. Terje and Kyreol’s concluding exchange in particular is memorably sweet and wry, and left me smiling for a long time.
Now, to go back in time and seek out Moon-Flash…