Charles de Lint’s Svaha

Svaha is Charles de Lint’s science-fiction novel. It seems that every fantasy writer must write at least one science-fiction novel, just as every science fiction writer must experiment with fantasy of one sort or another. As a dystopian, post-Apocalypse science fiction story (and boy, is it ever dystopian!), Svaha might be considered an anomaly when one thinks about de Lint’s reputation as the “godfather of urban fantasy,” but the perennial themes, those ideas that make de Lint the powerful storyteller he is, are here in full measure.

The setting is twenty-second century North America. The aboriginal peoples of the world have won back their lands in the white man’s courts and, with the aid of technology developed by the North American Natives, retreated into Enclaves scattered around the globe. What is left after Europe and America destroyed themselves in a limited nuclear exchange is a nightmare under the control of major conglomerates and criminal gangs – tongs, triads, yakuza – that are at least as large and powerful as those corporations. As you might guess from the terminology, the Japanese and Chinese have taken over running the world outside the Enclaves, and have done no better than the Europeans did: aside from everything else, it’s an ecological disaster, particularly around the Megaplexes, the only centers of population left: the only large mammals that remain are coyotes, those not living in the ‘Plexes or the squats that surround them – “suburbs” for the have-nots – suffer from horrible diseases brought on by genetic damage, and the acid rain really is acid: take shelter or suffer from severe burns. And in the mythology of the outside world, this is all the fault of the Clavers, for retreating into their strongholds.

There are two stories running in parallel here. The first is the story of Gahzee Animiki-Waewidum, Swift Speaks with Thunder, who leaves the Enclave of his people to scout the outside world. He is on his way to another Enclave that has fallen inexplicably silent, and looking for a flyer sent to investigate that is now missing. The big worry here is that Enclave technology will fall into the hands of the corporations that run the megaplexes and allow them to breach the Enclaves’ defenses. The price for his willingness to undertake this mission is that Gahzee can never return to his Enclave because of the contamination he is sure to bring with him.

The other story centers on Phillip Yip, half-Chinese, half-Japanese, and so, in the racial-purity politics of the corporate world, unvoiced though it may be, Phillip has never advanced as far as he should have in his company, a security firm that holds the contract for the Trenton Megaplex. He is also a man of integrity who sees the world in black and white – right or wrong – and only slowly begins to realize that the universe is a place of grays. It’s perhaps not so surprising that his allegiance has always been more to the welfare of the ‘Plex than to his company, even before he realized that the company was riddled with yakuza agents. Then he meets Fumiko Hirose, a beautiful young woman who is also attorney to Shigehero Goro, head of the yakuza clan in Trenton, and a yakuza with warrior training herself.

And that’s the amount of set-up required just to give a hint of what this novel is about. One of the joys of reading de Lint is that he usually manages to interweave the back story into the narrative smoothly, so that in this case, what is a fairly complex opening situation is revealed gradually and gracefully, with one exception that is straight exposition – and this reader decided he didn’t mind that: it’s a key section that lays out where the history of Svaha diverged from our own and makes the rest of the story intelligible, told skillfully and economically.

If you’re familiar with de Lint’s urban fantasies, it may come as a surprise that he could put together a post-Apocalyptic thriller, but he did it beautifully. It’s a fairly early work, first published in 1989, and so it’s not as polished as his current output, but it has all the hallmarks of de Lint: his use of North American Native folklore and spirituality as a basis for his themes of care for the earth and responsibility and compassion toward our fellow creatures, distrust of the trappings of Western civilization, the deep optimism in what people can achieve in a world that is harsh and often unfeeling. De Lint is essentially a romantic, and it comes through here in spite of the corruption and violence he portrays.

“Svaha” is an American Indian word that denotes the time between seeing the lightning and hearing the thunder: a time of waiting for promises to be fulfilled. That is precisely the mood of de Lint’s novel. It’s a very satisfying read.

(Tor Books, 1989)

About Robert Tilendis

Robert M. Tilendis lives a deceptively quiet life. He has made money as a dishwasher, errand boy, legal librarian, arts administrator, shipping expert, free-lance writer and editor, and probably a few other things he’s tried very hard to forget about. He has also been a student of history, art, theater, psychology, ceramics, and dance. Through it all, he has been an artist and poet, just to provide a little stability in his life. Along about January of every year, he wonders why he still lives someplace as mundane as Chicago; it must be that he likes it there.

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