I've long enjoyed the prose of Tanith Lee and I've admired her ability to tell a story in a lot less time than other writers. Somehow I'd never read her 1979 novel, “Electric Forest”, before but, frankly, this is the epitome of that. It's available in a beautiful new edition from DAW that looks really skimpy, 180 or so pages being notably short for 2019, but she does more in that space than I remember anyone else doing in twice as many.
It's ostensibly science fiction rather than fantasy, but it becomes fiction of no particular brand because this should have won awards outside its genre. It tells of a future world called Indigo in which the reproductive process is in the hands of the government to ensure that every baby is conceived artificially and delivered perfect. Only rarely do mistakes happen that lead to an actual biological conception and birth.
Magdala Cled is one such mistake and she's been made to feel it by a society that's horrified by her, starting with her mother, a licensed prostitute who abandons her at an orphanage. She's functional, intelligent and able to hold down a job, but she's apart from the world. And, into her life comes Claudio Loro, a scientist who can change all that by transferring her into a beautiful artificial body.
Everything here invites thought and Lee's evocative but economical prose does all it can to spur us to do that. I can't think of a better book to discuss in a book club setting. We're immediately set up to judge the society of Indigo, then the bargain Claudio brings to Magdala. If we actually do this, it serves us well as the novel progresses because it does behoove us to think about all we see. There is an electric forest in the book but it serves as a reminder to us that not everything is as it seems and, frankly, nothing might be.
We can't help but question everything, just as Magdala finds that she must too. Initially, she goes along with Claudio's offer, because what else is she going to do, but his sadistic nature continually rubs at her until she battles with him for control. Sure, some of what he does is to test her in her new body, but clearly that's not all of it and we have to wonder what he's really playing at.
While we ask a lot of questions, we don't find a lot of easy answers, from the very outset. For instance, we probably go along with Magdala as she takes up a fabulous offer to be beautiful, but why? She's not vain. Will she be more of a person in an artificial body than in her real one? She soon discovers limits: only her consciousness will transfer, for instance, leaving her real body in a scientific cradle, artificially nourished. However, as she realises, the cradle will treat her better than she's ever treated herself.
The rules that come into play make this sound like a fairy tale, but it's not that simple. Likewise it's not as simple as her still feeling ugly in her new beautiful body, because it's what she's used to, or the assumption of some (Claudio?) that while she's ugly, that doesn't also mean that she's stupid. The back cover blurb goes further than I'm willing to go but it doesn't spoil the story because there's so much going on here and so much that we either don't know or don't notice.
I wonder if Tanith Lee wrote this book backwards, because the many twists that come are truly glorious ones that are surely not the results of a pantser with good ideas. She clearly constructed this novel with the utmost care, working backwards and inwards from an ultimate idea, stripping every part down to its essence. How it plays when we read it forwards is frankly awe inspiring. I know I put this down at points to come to terms with what Lee had sprung on me. I'm pretty sure my mouth was so far open that I must have looked like a guppy as I did so.
I'm very glad that DAW are reprinting a lot of Tanith Lee's books. Each one that I read reminds me that I have a bunch on my shelf anyway and I haven't read most, let alone all of them. I shouldn't have needed a prompt from the publisher for me to dive into the fantastic worlds that she created over a prolific but accomplished career, given that I had read and enjoyed some of them. However, I had no idea that something like “Electric Forest” existed.
I have to suggest that, while its understanding of technology does date the book a littleand I don't mean the advanced stuff, which remains futuristic, but the basic tech like the recording equipment that a rich scientist like Claudio has to rely onits themes haven't dated at all and, in fact, are surely more pertinent now than they were in 1979. And, while other writers have capably explored some of this territory, I can't think of one who has done as much as this book and in so little space. It's simply magnificent. ~~ Hal C F Astell
For more titles by Tanith Lee click here