[Nocturne by Jus Neuce. Aio Publishing, 2005. 373 pp. ISBN 1-93308-301-8.]
I put my hand up to review Jus Neuce’s debut novel because one of the jacket reviews compares it to both C.J. Cherryh and Kim Stanley Robinson. I was pleasantly surprised to find that it’s half right—which is pretty good for a jacket review, in my experience. There’s no great similarity in content between Nocturne and Robinson’s Mars trilogy —which is the specific analogy being made —and even less between Neuce’s writing style and anything I’ve read from Robinson. The comparison to Cherryh, though, bears out (and not just because Neuce also has a name that makes you pause for a moment before attempting to pronounce it).
The Cherryh of comparison here is she of Foreigner, Wave Without a Shore, and Cyteen—stories pushed along by intense conversations, political intrigue and deeply conflicted characters driving themselves nuts trying to understand each other—rather than the more accessible action-adventure of the Chanur series or most of the other Alliance-Union books. Another comparison that sprung to my mind was Maureen F. McHugh (no relation to me, sadly) and in particular her first novel, China Mountain Zhang. Like these others, Nocturne is a product of a serious-minded writer with a lot to say about social power, prejudice and personal relationships. And like both Cherryh and McHugh, Neuce writes from within the heads of her characters. The reader’s access to every scene is inhibited by one character’s imperfect perceptions and much of the novel takes place in the internal monologues of the various cast members. This means Nocturne isn’t the most readily accessible work and won’t be to everyone’s taste, but it puts Neuce in the company of a couple of authors who’ve bagged most of the major awards between them.
It also means that Nocturne is a book that resists quick reading—do so and you’re likely to have only the broadest idea what’s going on. Neuce gives her story a deceptively simple setup, limiting its scope by setting it on an isolated colony world with two mutually dependent nations, consisting of only a handful of settlements and dominated by three political parties. Its complexity comes from the delivery of a macro-scale story of political upheaval via the prisms of her half-dozen POV characters, a couple of whom are either traumatized or emotionally repressed, while most of the rest have minds like snakepits.
Neuce’s writing style is very much like Cherryh’s—not especially surprising when she identifies Cyteen as her favorite novel. Like Cherryh, Neuce is clearly a writer who loves words, which isn’t to say Nocturne is overwritten. Rather, the author has a particular manner that is sometimes unusual in her choice of words, sometimes counterintuitive in the way she assembles them into sentences, but always deliberate and considered. It took me a while to get the rhythm of her writing, as it often does (for me) reading Cherryh, and an “invisible” writer she is not—unlike McHugh, who writes with a precise, straightforward economy of language. That said, Neuce does, from time to time, deliver a line that captures, with exquisite simplicity, not only an action but the full depth of social meaning behind it. One mundane example that’s stuck in my head nails the relationship between an assistant and her boss at a meeting of his peers: “She brought the coffee a few minutes later, slipped the cup and saucer onto the table in front of Loren and faded to a chair adjacent to the cabinetry along the inside wall.”
In motion, the assistant is a ghost; stationary, she’s furniture. Either way, the gulf in status between her and the oligarchs in the room renders her all but invisible.
Neuce doesn’t always nail it. The book’s opening sentence isn’t the snappiest I’ve ever read: “Before the explosion, when she and the audit group had come to the first food storage unit still blissfully unaware, Jenning turned her head and saw a tour group trailing some ways behind them.”
Which doesn’t compare favorably with (plucking an almost-random volume from my bookshelf) “Raymond Mantle took a flyer to Naples, the fallen city,” for example. Neuce is a way yet from being the kind of lyrical wordsmith Jack Dann or Terry Dowling are—but hey, this is a first novel and she nails it often enough to show she’s got more than just promise.
I have three real quibbles with Nocturne and the first (and least) is stylistic. Neuce uses italicized emphasis a lot. About halfway in, I thought to flip back through a few chapters and see exactly how much: two to three times per page, usually, and as many as five. It’s a device evidently picked up from reading a lot of C.J. Cherryh and seems generally more habitual than necessary. Often, coupled with the mannered sentence structure, it actually disrupts the flow of the writing, such as (opening the book at an almost-random page):
“Yes, well.” He reprised the same politic smile, rubbed his nose—brought out, good God, the folded sheets of numbers, what she had sent, and laid them on the desk. “Naturally I’m curious about this.”
Different territory entirely—which also said he didn’t want to talk party politics, did not want to get at all into it. Also that he lacked any finesse; a shame, but there was some bravery, no matter how foolish. “In what way?”
“Oh, where it came from, why you though it prudent to send it to me.”
Not doing badly, for the level of nerves. The air fairly vibrated with them.”
Ignoring the italics improves the flow—the sentence structures focus the emphasis on the italicized words anyway, it seems to me. Unlike some, I don’t think it’s a bad thing for prose to be visible, necessarily, but there’s a fine line between visible and irritating. Less would definitely be more, in this case.
My second problem is with the delivery of the central relationship in the narrative. I don’t pretend to be the most perceptive reader in the world (and I did read the first chapters too fast), but I really struggled to come to grips with what seemed a gay relationship, but one completely devoid of physical intimacy. It wasn’t until about two-thirds of the way through, as the novel’s crisis peaked, that I finally understood what was going on between these two characters. I think there’s a combination of reasons for this: one, (possibly) my own imperviousness to the author’s earlier hints. Two, that the reader has no opportunity to know these characters prior to the disaster of the opening pages, so their relationship is only ever post-traumatic, which for a good part of the book seems the most plausible reason for the awkwardness between them. And three, because Neuce does have, I think, a habit of writing around things rather than addressing them directly—which is, admittedly, a pretty authentic take on how most people think about their emotions, but doesn’t make it easy for the reader.
The consequence is that the reader (this reader, anyway) had the uncomfortable feeling of reading the kind of “safe” and strictly behind-closed-doors gay relationship you’d get in a Beverley O.C. Creek-type Spellingdrama, rather than the Queer As Folk frankness more appropriate to a serious-minded novel. In making my point, that’s probably a bit harsh, but even after the situation becomes clear, it plays out with a naivety that, for me, sits oddly in the wider story. And the ambiguity of the Nocturne relationship compares unfavorably to China Mountain Zhang, for example, in which by page nine we have: “I knock on the door and he opens it and kisses me there in the hall. He swears nobody cares but I still hate when he does it; if anyone suspected I’m bent it could cost me my job.”
True, the fragile position of gays in wider society is what China Mountain Zhang is largely about, whereas it isn’t what Nocturne is about. But that ability of McHugh’s to nail the essence of her character’s circumstance in a couple of brief sentences is something Neuce often fails to match (although, as indicated earlier, she does show that she can).
Third—and this is why a comparison to Robinson doesn’t hold water—Neuce’s world has a surprising lack of physical presence. Nocturne is a planet orbiting a red dwarf sun with one hemisphere permanently facing its parent, where the human colonists are confined to the twilight region (the terminator) between permanent day and permanent night. Neuce cites two works as inspiration for her world: Habitability of Planets Around Red Dwarf Stars and the heroically titled Simulations of the Atmospheres of Synchronously Rotating Terrestrial Planets Orbiting M Dwarfs: Conditions for Atmospheric Collapse and the Implications for Habitability [available online as a PDF—ed.]. Given these, one might expect Neuce’s world to have the pervasiveness and rigor of Robinson’s Mars (or of Ringworld or Gibson’s Tokyo, Miéville’s Bas-Lag or Dowling’s alternate Australias). It doesn’t, really. Whereas the hostility of Robinson’s Mars (the red one, anyway) defines everything about the human society that settles on it, Nocturne doesn’t. On a barren world, where does the human-friendly, oxygen-rich atmosphere come from? Where is the wind that one might expect to blow constantly between night-side and day? How is it that the ocean contains the right sorts of salts to permit cultivation of Terran marine life? How have the colonists compensated for their lack of Vitamin D living constantly beyond sight of the sun? All answerable questions—but not answered.
True, lots of authors don’t worry too much about these kinds of details. But, having created such a distinctive world, Neuce doesn’t use it. Occasional mentions of the different temperatures or quality of light as one traverses the terminator, or indications of street lighting in constant use, aren’t enough, for me, to bring Nocturne (the planet) alive. As a political thriller, Nocturne (the novel) really works well. When the true crisis hits, it comes from a direction that blindsides both reader and characters, while still emerging from within the parameters established in the first part of the book. In a handful of pages, both the tension levels and the stakes are raised exponentially. What the world does add to this is a real sense of claustrophobia, with its deeply divided society of maybe a quarter of a million people, completely cut off from any other human civilization. But, still, the story could almost as easily be set in a barren corner of post-apocalyptic Alaska or Canada as on a remote colony planet. For me, as a reader who loves place as much as character, this is Nocturne’s biggest shortcoming.
Jus Neuce is clearly a writer of talent and fans of C.J. Cherryh (like me) will be pleased to discover another writer who does what Cherryh does. Readers who enjoy a decent psychodrama or political thriller, sans phasers and sub-space anomalies, should consider giving it a read, too. Neuce does need to get out of her characters’ heads a bit more, to bring a real sense of place to her writing. And, personally, while I think it’s okay to wear your influences on your sleeve, I think she could find more of her own narrative voice. Nocturne is a strong debut and Neuce strikes me as a writer who will only get better, which is probably why I’ve felt it constructive to be so critical (whereas sticking the boot into a lesser first novel in a forum like this would be like kicking a spaniel). I’m definitely interested to see what she does with Nocturne’s sequel.