THE FECUND’S MELANCHOLY DAUGHTER
By Brent Hayward
As often as science fiction and fantasy get dumped together into a common hybrid ghetto, “SF/Fantasy,” critics and practitioners try to separate them out again. Some of their attempts can be quite sophisticated, but the basic distinction shouldn’t be that hard to make: SF is set in the future while it’s normal to think of fantasy as belonging to a mythic, pre-scientific past. Whatever else all those elves and dwarves were doing back in the low-tech days of Middle Earth, they weren’t flying around in space ships or trying to fight the Dark Lord with ray guns. Admittedly with the advent of steampunk the line became harder to draw. The nineteenth century not only had scientists but a science fiction of its own. But alternate history is still a backward-looking genre, I would argue, and takes us outside SF proper. Whenever I come across alternate history in an SF anthology I feel there’s been a mistake.
That said, there are many SF writers whose vision of the future looks an awful lot like the past. This can come about in at least a couple of different ways: by imagining a dystopic future where the human race has regressed to a dark age, or by travel to a more primitive planet. Brent Hayward, author of the excellent debut novel Filaria, combines the two in The Fecund’s Melancholy Daughter. His setting this time out is a fantasy world made up of a pastiche of retro borrowings: castles with gloomy, monster-filled dungeons, a working medieval theory of humours, and even a pantheon of Babylonian gods blazing across the sky.
There are several elements carried over from Filaria that are worth remarking. Filaria was set in a subterranean world organized on a strict hierarchy of levels: sewer dwellers at the bottom, angels on top. The whole thing comes grinding to a halt when the machine keeping it running stops (I’m sure Hayward must have had Forster’s story in mind). In The Fecund’s Melancholy Daughter the city of Nowy Solum is dominated by the same rigid chain of being, with dirty “Kholics” (short for melancholics because of the black bile that runs through their veins) being in charge of urban sanitation while a caste of high-born aristocrats live in a towering Gormenghast-style palace. Like the ant-colony of Filaria, Nowy Solum is also a social structure experiencing a profound sense of decay due to some kind of mechanical failure. In the neo-Dark Age that has ensued no one is capable of fixing alienated technologies that have all gone to smash. And so the city falls apart, overwhelmed by illness and excrement as the palace’s decadent chatelaine holds unspeakable orgies in her royal bedchambers:
What they witnessed was a series of drunken and depraved acts, at times involving as many as three men in masks, and two women. Bizarre apparatuses – the use of which neither would have ever guessed had they not seen them employed with their own eyes – scattered the floor, like casualties.
Also similar to Filaria is the narrative structure, which consists of a series of different strands that are gradually linked together as the adventures of various characters intersect. As the monster known as the Fecund, a maternal Jabberwocky locked away in the cellar of the palace, sees it, “there’s more to a story than events taking place in one location, to one person.” Instead the novel draws together different threads, instants “plucked from the stream of time as it passes by: countless episodes, from a myriad of human lives.” These different threads are, in turn, introduced in the text by a series of recurring images (flower, drum, bird, knife, cup, etc.).
These visual cues are much appreciated, as the story has the texture of a dream, making some of it very hard to follow. Hayward’s imagination is itself a kind of Fecund, spinning tall tales and spewing forth all manner of furniture. One can get a feel for the texture of it – the imagery, repetition, rhythm and sound effects – in the following passage:
Beyond the vaulted stone ceiling of the grotto, where Name of the Sun’s eyes had earlier failed to discern anything of note, and where the liberated cherub soon came to roost; beyond the stalagmites and lime deposits and the blind white cave beetles that fed on the guano of blind white bats, was a corridor, and a series of holding cells, used for prisoners of castellan and chatelaine alike, throughout the ages. There were four cells. Currently, three were empty, sealed, and had been this way for centuries. The fourth was occupied.
How can you resist those blind white cave beetles feeding on the guano of blind white bats? Such lines are immortal.
But though The Fecund’s Melancholy Daughter is a thrilling adventure that’s vividly and lushly drawn, it’s finally a bit muffled in its meaning. I will confess to being left a bit confused as to what happens at the end (and even uncertain about what, exactly, the title was referring to). The Fecund’s labour seems to have some symbolic weight – rather like Yeats’s rough beast slouching toward Bethlehem, which is “a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi,” a male sphinx, the embodiment of the antithetical cycle, and no doubt a dozen other things. The end of Hayward’s book is suggestively apocalyptic in the same way, with a birth (or at least a transformation of sorts), a deus ex machina, and the promise of the clouds above Nowy Solum finally clearing.
Of course you don’t have to read the book this way, but I like books that are open to different levels of interpretation. As for the lack of clarity, it’s mainly the result of juggling so many narrative balls, and juxtaposing so many (often quite limited) points of view. If the results have a chaotic feel one can respond that Nowy Solum is a chaotic place. And perhaps in any honestly imagined future the line between science and fantasy starts to blur.
Review first published online May 30, 2011.