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Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Greensmith by Aliya Whiteley review



Order Greensmith here or directly from the publisher

OFFICIAL AUTHOR INFO: Aliya Whiteley writes across many different genres and lengths. Her first published full-length novels, Three Things About Me and Light Reading, were comic crime adventures. Her 2014 SF-horror novella The Beauty was shortlisted for the James Tiptree and Shirley Jackson awards. The following historical-SF novella, The Arrival of Missives, was a finalist for the Campbell Memorial Award, and her noir novel The Loosening Skin was shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award.

She has written over one hundred published short stories that have appeared in Interzone, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Black Static, Strange Horizons, The Dark, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and The Guardian, as well as in anthologies such as Unsung Stories’ 2084 and Lonely Planet’s Better than Fiction.

She also writes a regular non-fiction column for Interzone

FORMAT/INFO: Greensmith, published on October 17, 2020 by Unsung Stories, counts 147 pages and is available as ebook and paperback. Cover design by Vince Haig. Cover artwork by Sam Chivers.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: Penelope Greensmith, a middle-aged bio-librarian, dedicated her life to cataloging and safekeeping seeds of all known plants in a mysterious device left by her father. She has no other interests or meaningful relationships. She keeps irregular contact with her daughter (named Lilly after Lilium Longiflorum) and her ex-husband. People find her eccentricities charming at first, but unbearable in the long run. 

One day a strange and charming adventurer, Hort, pays her a visit. He claims her collection can help in stopping a terrible plague that turns plants into rotten mush. All over the Universe. Penelope joins him on a space adventure to save the Universe. And maybe even Earth. The problem? Well, dimension-hopping and corporeal form don’t mix well; she needs to go through her own device and become information. She leaves Earth, her home, her body, and her daughter behind. 

Does it sound like an iteration of Doctor Who? Yes, it does. And it’s intentional. It’s infused with subtle humor, and the narrative pokes fun at the staples of the genre. During Hort and Penelope’s travels, we meet rebel flamingos fighting evil lizards, a planet-sized sentient plant, hive minds, and more. The plot moves at a fast pace with Hort opening portals to new places with a gesture of his hand.

There’s almost no exposition and when it appears, it’s served with humor. Take this line appearing just before we get a condensed data about the world: 

‘You need to understand what’s happening here and we’ve got an awful lot of exposition to get through so I’ll just ping that straight into your brain.’ 

And then Hort does it by touching Pam’s forehead. I loved this moment. 

The book alternates between first and third-person perspectives of Penelope’s experiences. The narration tends to get unusual but it shouldn't come as a surprise - we’re inside the head of a woman that doesn’t quite exist anymore. At least not in the way we do. Her voice is strong and filled with emotions.

Gentle humor adds levity to the exploration of difficult themes (end of the world, destructive virus, loss, betrayal). To make matters more interesting, Whiteley plays with the form and tries to understand the limitations of human speech in describing reality and alien consciousness. Penelope tries to keep her sanity by striving to see the world the way humans do, even though she knows it makes her experience warped. In other words, she tries to understand her experience in anything approaching human terms. Instead of experiencing the weird reality, she translates it for us using words we know. Whiteley’s descriptions of the unknown and indescribable are fascinating but require focus. 

Greensmith feels uneasy at times, but it’s also fresh and unpredictable. It’s sad but also funny, melancholic but fast-paced. Well worth a read.

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