– Emily Dickinson
What makes a good science fiction or fantasy book is what makes any good book: conflict, character, and strong writing. Yet with science fiction in particular, I find the more compelling books need to do more. They have to draw me into an alien world, present a changed or future Earth. Sometimes, as in Star Trek, they offer us a more ideal version of ourselves. World peace is achieved, we’re reaching for the stars, and the conflict comes from our contact with alien societies. Sometimes, as in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, we look into a dystopian future where all is wrong with the world. We had it far better than we knew, and we let it slip away through greed or arrogance. Good fantasy sweeps me up in a world of magic. Good science fiction can chill me to the core.
Winterlong, the first book chosen for our book club, certainly puts a bit of ice in my spine. It’s as lush as a One Hundred Years of Solitude, but like that book, every garden holds a deadly human danger. Being a bit hopeful about our future, I tend to shy from post-apocalyptic novels, but Elizabeth Hand crafts a world so far removed from us that our past is jumbled together with the society’s idea of us: religion, history, sexuality, mythology, even our museums are transformed, often beautifully, often horrifically, but rarely in a way we’d truly recognize. Children, particularly, meet terrible fates in this book. Innocence is either anathema to survival in Winterlong’s world or it is the key to unlocking far more terrible horrors. Doorways are opened and things we’ve always carried inside us are let loose.
Not for the faint of heart, Winterlong could be further compared to One Hundred Years of Solitude in that it shares traits with magical realism, though Hand’s world has science and the acts of mankind as cause for the terrible changes that descend without warning onto the landscape. At the novel’s center is a fairytale trait, a “garden within a garden,” a mythic archetype lurking in the mutated flowers. Death haunts these characters, at first from without, then soon from within, the scariest place it can dwell. Two tangling point of views come together. Distinct shards of a broken society are deeply explored, and Hand lets her characters’ Todestrieb, their death-instinct, out to play in an already terrible world.
I choose Winterlong for our inaugural book because it’s long been on my list. I suspect it will haunt me far longer. It’s a book I will read again, without enjoyment, but with a desire to untangle its puzzles and revisit its warnings.