A review of Rjurik Davidson’s Unwrapped Sky, Tor: 2014, $19.99

Docks that are the site of thaumaturgical wonder-working as well as industrial agitation; a seditionist hideout where revolutionaries debate philosopher-assassins; tram manufacturers that combine speed-ups and shop-floor discipline with magic and incantations: Rjurik Davidson’s Unwrapped Sky offers us a richly detailed, fully explored science fantasy world in the best traditions of political imagination.

Science fiction explores radically other worlds, so it is no wonder that socialists have been drawn to it as a form. Freed from having to represent the world as it is now, science fiction can make us perform imaginative exercises pondering just what a wholly other world – a world outside of capitalism and the “common sense” realities of our present – might involve.

Davidson, for many years a militant in the Democratic Socialist Party in the 1990s and a revolutionary socialist still, writes in the tradition of Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed or China Mieville’s Iron Council. He adds a new, wonderfully strange, world to our imaginative armoury.

Unwrapped Sky imagines revolution. Its city, Caeli-Amur, is run by competing houses, all now in periods of extended decline, and much more vicious as a result. “The old is dying”, in Gramsci’s phrase, “and the new cannot be born”. The world of Unwrapped Sky is full of the “morbid symptoms” of a social order decaying and turning in on itself.

Once, there was magic and myth; now there are common tricks, charms and incantations designed to speed up production, which leave workers coming out of trances “ashen-faced and distraught”. Rebellion and discontent are beginning, tentatively, to take organised form. The novel follows these developments from both sides.

Davidson’s great achievement is his smashing together the fantastical and the familiar. There’s lots of wonderfully weird science fantasy going on in Unwrapped Sky to exercise the imagination – curious worlds, uncanny forms of surveillance, ancient powers. But there are also many all too recognisable dilemmas from the world of our own activism and commitment.

Davidson has chosen, wisely I think, to make none of his characters wholly sympathetic, or, rather, to make them sympathetic in uncomfortable ways. We spend time with a class traitor, “rising” from the factory floor to management; a spy or informer getting pulled towards the revolutionary ideas she must betray; a revolutionary theorist watching his ideas and expectations bend and warp in the face of real revolutionary possibility.

Davidson isn’t afraid to make ideas, argument and debate a central part of his action. Some of the most thrilling parts of Unwrapped Sky occur when the reader must follow seditionist debates through to their consequences.

Too many fantasy worlds reproduce a kind of Tolkien or George R.R. Martin template of the frozen north. So it’s nice to uncover (as with Mad Max) something of the Australian environment in this other world – a city much like Sydney in its hills, chaos and “stifling heat and burning sun” in a “radiant pulsing glare”. Not all the novel works this well; the stimulating strangeness and rigour of the seditionists’ battles leave a rather conventional emotional sub-plot, involving a disappointingly familiar “romance” from our own world, feeling flat.

But, at its best, this is an exhilarating, militant, politically engaged and imaginatively ambitious debut. Its final pages make clear there will be sequels to come. Red Flag readers should look out for them.