Recent Reading: Deep Wheel Orcadia by Harry Josephine Giles

Every Clarke Award shortlist includes at least one utterly unexpected nominee, a complete wildcard. Think Iain Pears's Arcadia, originally envisioned as an app experience in which readers would choose for themselves the order of the story's chapters. Or Patience Agbabi's middle grade novel The Infinite. It's less common for these nominees to win the whole thing, so Harry Josephine Giles's Deep Wheel Orcadia, a verse novel written in the Orkney dialect (on offshoot of Scots spoken on the Orkney archipelago), was a book that I approached with some interest, having claimed the award over more conventional nominees like Arkady Martine's A Desolation Called Peace, and much bigger names like Kazuo Ishiguro's Klara and the Sun. While I'm not quite certain that I would have made the same choice (Mercurio D. Rivera's Wergen, and Aliya Whiteley's Skyward Inn, strike me as no less worthy winners), Deep Wheel Orcadia is an exciting winner, one whose formal innovations compensate for a perhaps overly familiar SFnal plot.

Deep Wheel Orcadia is set in the titular station, a once-bustling transport hub now barely eking out a living by mining fuel from the nearby gas giant. It's told in short chapters that vary in meter and style, each presented first in Orkney and then in an English translation, which range across the station's inhabitants and tell several overlapping stories. The novel begins with two arrivals: Astrid, a station-born young woman who has been living on Mars and working as an artist, has returned for a visit, and perhaps to figure out whether she's willing to make her separation from the station permanent; Darling, a trans woman on the run from her wealthy (and, it is implied, all-male) Martian family, has made Orcadia a station on her tour, while trying to figure out whether it's possible for her to stop anywhere and make a home. Other storylines include an archeologist, Noor, who is studying the alien wrecks that keep being discovered in the space around the gas giant; visions of historical figures experienced by several of the station's residents; and ongoing anxieties about the sustainability of the station's economic project.

To a non-native reader, the use of language is one the most interesting aspects of Deep Wheel Orcadia, and Giles makes some very pointed and deliberate choices with it, that ultimately end up having significance to their story. Some readers might be tempted to skip the Orkney segments and go straight to the English ones, but this, I think, misses out on some the effect the novel is aiming for. Some parts of the Orkney are as as clear as water even to someone who doesn't speak the language ("The chime o the tannoy is whit taks her back, fer hid isno chaenged") while others are entirely opaque ("pierheids trang wi yoles, wi glims, an fund the gloup atween ootbye an in closin slaa"). The way the text slips between those two states is as disorienting to readers as it no doubt is to characters like Noor and Darling, who constantly think they're on solid ground before realizing that they've missed something extremely basic. Eventually, one learns some of the language ("yoles" are ships, which the stationers take out to mine the gas giant). But even when the Orkney is entirely alienating to English readers, the novel is careful not to prioritize the more common language. When flipping to the English version of that inscrutable sentence above, we find "pierheads fullactiveintimate with boats, with gleampointlights, and found the chasmcleft between outside and inside closing laxslowy." It's a reminder that translation is always a choice, one that always misses some nuance even when we aren't aware of it—"slaa" seems like it has an obvious English analogue, but Giles rejects it.

There's an obvious political component to these translation choices—as seen, for example, in the fact that when outsiders like Noor and Darling speak, their dialogue is rendered in English even in the Orkney segments. But what's interesting is that those politics clearly exist even in the novel's context. Everyone understands Noor and Darling, but addresses them in Orkney nonetheless. In other contexts, however, English is allowed to have an unthinking supremacy—a banner at the annual station dance is written in it, despite the stationers musing that this is a language that "they deu an dinno spaek". And when Astrid takes Darling home to meet her parents, she's quietly outraged by how their speech unthinkingly slides closer to English to accommodate their guest's more dominant culture. At the same time, the Orkney of this future setting has incorporated the future into itself. When discussing the new drive system that is allowing ships to travel to deep space without stopping at Orcadia, a local explains that "The drive maks a pock, see, o hyperspace tae win trou, tae exceed relatievistic constraints." (In other places, the use of language to obscure has other uses. Darling initially tells us that she had surgery to change her appearance when she first ran away from her fathers. It's only later that the full import of this procedure becomes clear.)

The Orcadia of the novel is thus both a metaphor for the islands from which its inhabitants obviously hail—insular, economically strained, struggling to maintain its own culture against the onslaught of a much more powerful one, worrying about whether it can keep its community whole or whether children will inevitably drift away to better economic and social opportunities—and a coherent SFnal setting in its own right. It achieves this primarily by assuming that economic structures that create and perpetuate inequality today will persist into the future and into space. In one chapter, a ship captain who is being paid for delivering a new alien wreck to Noor muses that it will take months for sublight messages recording the sale to reach the central banks and update her credit, whereas once, when Orcadia was more economically stable, it could maintain its own separate banking system. In another, a political radical tries to persuade the station council to take the economic downturn as an opportunity to detach themselves from the capitalist consensus and explore other economic systems, only to be met with polite incomprehension. And a third sees a fuel miner in tears of rage over a report that suggests that the gas giant she's been mining, from which she ekes a meager living, may be home to sentient aliens.

Much of the novel is concerned with imagining ordinary, familiar life even in the depths of space, within the context of this remote and economically depressed outpost. Astrid and Darling become involved but find themselves frequently at loggerheads over questions of belonging and ownership. Astrid is outraged—to a degree that she can't even fully articulate—at Darling's attempts to make a home for herself on Orcadia, seeing it as a form of appropriation. But Astrid herself is torn, drawn back to her life on Mars and the opportunities it offers, but reluctant to leave behind the only place where her culture and language still live. Astrid's mother tries to convince her daughter to stay on the station, while arguing with the crewmates on her ship about the risks they've been taking to bring in sufficient hauls. Other characters muse about their retraining once the work they used to live on became automated or lost its clientele. The local bar owner debates selling his business and trying to make a life elsewhere. Everything culminates in a dance, an annual tradition whose whirling circles embody the central metaphor of the novel, the circles of movement in which everyone is caught, sometimes escaping the gravitational pull of a home, sometimes allowing themselves to be caught by it.

As a work of science fiction, Deep Wheel Orcadia is a bit on the basic side—and it ends rather abruptly, with no concrete answer to the questions raised by the inhabitants' visions, the mysterious alien wrecks, or the suggestion that the gas giant may be populated. The more personal questions raised by the novel's storytelling are, similarly, left unresolved. We never find out whether Astrid chooses to stay or go, whether Darling's efforts to make Orcadia her home meet with success, whether the bar owner will succeed in making a new life for himself elsewhere, or whether the mining ships will keep flying. What we get instead is a glimpse of this place, which is both new and old, and which continues to circle in space, speaking in its own unique voice.


S Johnson said…
An SF novel set in the far future but no mechanical translation?
Yes, why didn't an author making a specific political statement with their choice of language posit a technology that obviates that statement? 🙄
S Johnson said…
Because they wanted to rig the story to suit their purpose, obviously. The first question for me as a reader is, can I manage to suspend my disbelief? As for the politics, the assumption that capitalism will conquer space struck me as dubious back when Babylon 5 was airing. But it's a political statement too.

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