Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Vel and Orlando

In his "On Books" column in the March 2010 issue of Asimov's SF, Paul DiFilippo reviews Centuries Ago and Very Fast. Here's a bit of what he says:
Ah, but a true power chord is infinitely replenishable, given enough talent on the part of the author. And Rebecca Ore proves this to the max with her new “novel in stories,” Centuries Ago and Very Fast (Aqueduct Press, trade paper, $16.00, 160 pages, ISBN 978-1933500-25-6).

We are introduced in economical fashion to three main characters: Vel, a seemingly immortal man who was born in the Paleolithic, some fourteen thousand years ago. Not only has Vel survived to the present, thanks to remarkable regenerative abilities, he’s also discovered how to time-jump, so that he can visit any point along his personal continuum. His unique history is known to one of his generations-separated descendants, a modern woman named Carolyn. And he’s recently also disburdened himself to a new lover named Thomas. For Vel, you see, is gay.

Now, at first this sounds like the setup to a bad joke or parody. But in the capable hands of Ore, it’s anything but. This novel comes with an endorsement from Samuel Delany, and on sexual and gender issues it exhibits the same polished rawness and sophisticated yet wide-eyed wonderment that Delany’s writing is famous for. Vel is utterly believable—and believably strange—as a fusion of pre-modern, postmodern, and timeless attitudes and habits. He narrates most of the book, with some chapters from Thomas’s POV, and he comes across as the ultimate alien in our midst, rather in the manner of the hero of Carol Emshwiller’s The Secret City (2007). A cousin to our species, yet not exactly in our direct lineage.
I'm always pleased, of course, to see Aqueduct's books reviewed. But I can't help remarking that whenever I'm reading anything by DiFilippo's that's not fiction, I always expect to encounter at least one head-scratching moment. & so as I continued reading the review past this point, I was sort of holding my breath, wondering if this review was going to be the exception.

It was not to be. The moment came in the final sentence of the review:
In a way, Ore is following in the footsteps of Virginia Woolf as well: this is her caveman Orlando (1928).

After I did a little head scratching, I thought, well okay, I can get that for both Orlando and Centuries Ago the story's about a young guy who lives for centuries without aging... and I can get that much of the tension in both stories has to do with how they react/adapt to changes in the worlds they live in... But still. Orlando? Whose interest for us, unlike that of Vel, lies chiefly in the apparent extremity of his change? Hmmmm...

So what I'm thinking now is that it'd be interesting to hold Orlando (by which I mean both the character and character's life in the narrative) up to Vel (ditto), in profile, nose to nose, and look at all the places where their profiles don't meet-- where there're gaping spaces between the two. Though somehow I don't think that's what DiFilippo actually had in mind when he offered the comparison...

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

One big difference (and I love Orlando) is that Vel tells stories and never ever lets anyone completely into his head. Orlando is exposed by his/her narrator (Woolfe was more sophisticated and intelligent than Vita Sackville-West), who has a somewhat ironic stance to her character.

Then there's the sex change. And then in CA&VF, lesbians are the normal ones.

CA&VF is about memory and reconstruction, the impossibility of remembering one's whole life, the framing of one's life as a series of narratives that may not be complete or even in temporal order. Orlando is always in the POV character's present, if I remember correctly.