Sunday, 29 May 2011

Ian Watson, The Gardens of Delight (1980)

This is really a gloriously odd book: brilliantly, almost repellently eccentric—unpredictable, unlike anything else I’ve read, and other suchlike terms of the highest praise I can bestow. An Earth colony ship, the Copernicus, has gone missing; a second ship, the Starship Schiaparelli, goes in search, retracing their trajectory to a strange planet beneath a yellow sun. As soon as they land their craft is disabled by a mysterious force. As the crew explore—our attention is primarily with the ship’s psychologist, Sean Athlone—we realise that this world is a literalisation of the famous Heironymus Bosch triptych The Garden of Earthly Delight; Hell; Heaven.

Now, another writer might string this revelation out, have realisation dawn slowly on the crew, try and generate narrative suspense. Not Watson. It’s evident pretty much from the get-go that this is where they are—Bosch’s paintings, come to life, on a distant planet—and the explanation for this bizarreness is got out of the way early on too. It’s that tired old Star Trek TOS trope, alien superintelligences with superpowers who trap a starship crew in an environment plucked from the mind of one of the crewmen for their own reasons. Watson isn’t particularly interested in all that. Instead he spends most of this short (180-page) novel simply exploring Bosch’s world. The crew have landed in the Garden; some of the crew try to hang onto their mission objectives and Earthly mindsets; other abandon themselves to the new place. There’s a great deal of polymorphous shagging involving humans, animals and weird Bosch-monsters. There’s a character called ‘Knossos’ (ie, ‘Gnosis’) who seems to be acting as the agent of the world’s God. Sean and some others realise that they have to die and pass through hell properly to understand, and so they do. Hell is rendered with the sadistic-lubricious specificity of Bosch’s original vision. One example: our characters stumble across L’Enfer des Musiciens:
One player was banging his head against a big bass drum. A giant lute rose from the sand like a spineless stringed cactus. A blond man was crucified across the peg-box and finger board of the lute. His fingers and toes plucked blindly at the strings, providing tenor accompaniments to a harp which sprouted at right angles out of the sound hole of the lute. Impaled within its strings writhed a lanky attenuated victim, whose constant spastic trembling urged a rippling gurgle from the strings ... A wrinkled fellow, squatting on all fours, played a flute stuck up his own anus—a far flute. A very fat man crawled round and round the group as fast as he could. He had staves of music tattooed across his buttocks: tattoos that changed shape to the squirm and ripple of his vast flesh. The players’ score was thus only visible to each player for a time, and then in a distorted way. Between glimpses the players guessed or improvised, producing clashing disharmonies which might nevertheless have resolved into harmony if only they could all have got into step with each other. A freakish conductor waddled after the crawling buttocks of his score, draped in punk muslin. He had a toad’s head. [97]
This vignette is the novel, of course. Watson dons his toad-head (not for the first time) and deliberately misfits the usual elements of a space-opera planetary exploration novel to create a jangling, startling, occasionally amazing assemblage. All the beasts and men in these linked worlds evolve into different forms; the fish become merman, the lions become birds, in an never-ending cycle. Where’s it all going? Characters speculate on the purpose of it all, and expatiate on the difference between unteleogical evolution and the progressive gradient of a divine cosmos (‘as soon as you introduce a presiding God you must believe in a tendency towards him’, 77). Sean and some of his friends discover the Devil, are eaten by him and shat into Eden. There’s a good deal of restless motion in the book, although the larger pattern is circular (or, pace the book’s dedication, perhaps ‘toroidal’ would be a better word). Hell is defined by a machinic inability to grow, evolve and flow; but even in hell there is a scatological sense of passing through.
Demons were dropping from the zenith as though newly cast out of Heaven, although there was no sign of Heaven up there, only star-studded darkness. Metallic devils, cyborg devils—with visored helmet heads sprouting antennae, thin steel arms clutching weighted nets, swollen blue pot-bellies and folded butterfly wings! ... The creatures shat convulsively, offloading ballast. A foul rain fell.


The demons’ diarrhoea was transformed into billows of asphyxiating gas as it splattered the ground and the fleeing Four. Gasping, eyes streaming blindly, Sean ran, directly into a clinging, tightening mesh. [105]
As convulsively, this cyborg novel shits out images, interpretations, embedded stories, transformations. The pleasure (and it is kind of fun) of using the book as a deranged gazetteer of Bosch’s canvases is smartly broken-up and interrupted. What I mean is: you can lay a reproduction of the Bosch paintings on the table in front of you and check Watson's scenes and descriptions against them, and that would pass the time very agreeably. But although he is scrupulous in his accounting, and has a wonderful eye for detail, yet the book as a whole keeps jolting us out of this ekphrastic pursuit. This is because Watson takes these paintings as repositories of psychological symbols of genuine eloquence; and also as alchemical rebuses—takes, indeed, these two things as in a sense the same thing. Once again, he’s upfront about this.
‘There was a man on the Copernicus who had this vision of evolution. He was obsessed with alchemy—the ‘science’ of transmutation—as a means of this. And he had an obsession with the paintings of an artist called Hieronymus Bosch. One in particular—The Gardens of Earthly Delight, flanked by the Garden of Eden and Hell—was full of symbols of this science: a coded alchemy in action. The alien superbeing we call ‘God’ granted him his vision was He terraformed this world for all the colonists. [114]
Alchemy is an interesting thing. Setting aside its chronological priority, it stands in relation to ‘chemistry’ in ways that are somewhat akin to the relationship between SF and science. Towards the end of this novel, Watson, relents and gives us a more conventional SFnal explanation for all the oddities and perversities of his text (the superbeings speak: ‘Black holes are not forever bound by the event horizon. Quantum tunnelling makes their boundaries fuzzy ... a collapsing ellipsoid mass rotating rapidly about its long axis will shrink, not to a pointlike singularity within an event horizon but to a threadlike singularity that is naked to the manifest universe’, 159) but it’s not so much Physics as a mode of Alphysicky.

The schema, or schemae, of Renaissance alchemy—the four humours and their physical manifestations, the geometric and transformative valences—are all, so far as I can see, worked-out and realised in the structure of the novel: black characters balance white, each bizarre hybrid monster-creature has a semiotic rationale. But the effect of the novel is not precision; it is one of riotous, libidinal excess, energetically crazy, invigoratingly imaginative. It bursts gloriously out of its own scheme in manifold ways. Strange in the best way.

1 comment:

Gareth Rees said...

It's a splendidly bizarre novel, isn't it? Ian Watson is a writer I often think of when critics propound some theory about what science fiction ought to be (like Ian Sales's insistence that sf must be "rigorous", or Martin Lewis's claim that sf can't mix-and-match realism and satire). Watson shows that if you have the chutzpah and the talent, you can treat science fiction as a glorious bag of tropes which you can treat as toys to play with. SF doesn't have to be realistic, or speculative, or rigorous, it can be whatever a writer wants to make of it.

Nice review, too: makes me want to go back and reread it—and the rest of Watson's Ĺ“uvre.