Rupetta - a review

For a very brief time, Nike Sulway was a PhD supervisor of mine, standing in for another who was on a leave of absence, so I guess there's that for a disclosure.

Rupetta book cover
Image source and © Tartarus Press

While perusing the endless Dewey 800 section in my uni's library, I saw two works from people I knew, even if that personal knowledge has been brief. One was by Moya Costello, and this work, by Nike Sulway. The blurb for this work drew me in immediately - a clockwork woman who brings about monumental change in her society for centuries for come. To the author's credit, she never attempts to explain the science and technology behind Rupetta and what makes her tick, pun intended. A lesser author would’ve, and I've read many a hard SF novel where the author has mired him- and herself down in the fine details of their ooh-aah inventions. This is a story of humanity first and foremost. Character, emotion, action and response take precedent here.

The novel is roughly divided into equal narratives from the viewpoint of Rupetta and an aspiring student at a prestigious college. It becomes obvious through reading Rupetta's account that the world and cult that have emerged from her presence are based on power, corruption and an unhealthy share of lies. Henriette's narratives focus at first on her dedications to her study, the conflicting emotions she possesses about said study with the desires and needs of her ailing father. The two narratives are contrastive - Rupetta's often matter-of-fact recounting is counterpoised by Henri's yearning and acquisitive nature. Almost unwillingly (and unwittingly), she becomes enmeshed in the larger and darker affairs of her world. The two narratives practically merge into one later as the protagonist's existences begin to coincide, which leads to a compellingly inconclusive yet hopeful story resolution.

The world these people live in is ours - sort of. I imagine Rupetta's discovery and subsequent exploitation by the character of Montane is the point of divergence. The concept that people can live forever if their hearts are replaced by unfailing mechanical ones may be a factual conceit, but it is the one that has altered Rupetta's world irrevocably. Religions - and most of these are admittedly underpinned by a human fear of death - have been replaced by the Fourfold Law, a set of dicta that emphasise the primacy of science, often violently. The crusaders and inquisitors of the world's old religions have been supplanted by zealots of the pursuit of science-based immortality. As The Who put it so cleverly - here comes the new boss, same as the old boss. So, a good deal of Rupetta's world lives in fear of inquisitors and questioners. Heretics are pursued and punished with as much fervour as practiced by any religious faction.

But, and this is one of this novel's deficits for mine, this world is never fleshed out, never made solid at any place in the work. Places we recognise are mentioned - Paris, Moreton Bay, as are trees and plants familiar to Australian audiences, but there is no scope, no context. People go from A to B with no concern for temporal distances or even the mere mention of geography. This is my issue with the novel rather than being an issue per se. I love my world-building and a work as strange as Rupetta almost cries out for a concrete framework to the emotions and desires at play here. But without second-guessing the author, I imagine emotional heft was the desired outcome here and things such as crafting a compelling counter-Earth was best left to others.

Rupetta is written in flowing, lovely language and is frequently a joy to read solely on that basis. It's also deep and occasionally knotty, requiring careful reading. It's immensely narrative heavy and I did find myself wishing there was more dialogue and direct character action. That said, the contrasting styles of Rupetta and Henri more than make up for the lack of direct conversation. The dialogue techniques are interesting when implemented. There's your typical dialogue: she said, he said, but a fair portion is in italicised rumination or indirect dialogue. These methods add a lustre to the work and reinforce the emotive power of these women's accounts. So, if this work has any other "flaw", it'd be the lack of dialogue. But that's me.

All up, this is a wonderful work that should appeal to those who love deep, emotional novels - the transcendence of love over earthly travails, but also those who like their works to be weirdly prickly, exquisitely crafted and dense.

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