The Sky is Yours
Chandler Klang Smith
“Even before the dragons came, our city was crumbling,” Chandler Klang Smith's richly impressive debut The Sky is Yours begins. “It was as though this place was a dream we'd dreamed together, a dream gone to tatters in the morning light.”
The opening note will be suggestive to readers of China Mieville's New Crobuzon novels, or the great Viriconium novels of M. John Harrison, in which the Evening Cultures are likewise tattered dreams from which their inhabitants can't awaken. And the opening note is followed immediately by exactly the kind of extended dystopian surreality that both Mieville and Harrison (and predecessors like Jack Vance) make look so easy:
Dull-eyed humans drifted past boarded storefronts, walking all kinds of animals on leashes. Vultures perched on sick trees in the park. A man clad in garbage bags sang his song in the middle of a bleak avenue as a single taxi sputtered past. Young girls dressed as if for the grave in Sunday dresses and secondhand shoes. Couches appeared on the curbs, were joined there by beds and rugs and tables; whole rooms assembled piece by piece, and the shadows of people occupied these rooms. It became the fashion to speak of oneself in the past tense. Wine flowed from dusty casks into dusty glasses. Chaw regained its popularity; dream-candy, some called it, mutant psychotropic moss mashed up with molasses and additives whose names we'd never known. We chewed it up and spat it out. Neon words went dark, leaving orphaned letters behind. Sometimes we heard laughter in our unfinished apartment complexes, though no one else was renting the units on our floor. We lived in a ruin.
The ruin that is the setting for The Sky is Yours may not be the handiwork of the two dragons that rule its sky and terrorize its city, but they certainly haven't helped matters any. Their specter haunts the book's many characters, from wheelchair-bound crackpot Osmond to Baroness Swan Lenore Dahlberg, the book's standout character, or Duncan Humphrey Ripple V, the young son of the city's hyper-monied upper crust, whose initial flying-car mishap sets what amounts to the book's main plot in motion.
That plot swoops and glides all over the landscape; the sheer ambit of topics Smith pulls in to her larger narrative is astonishingly varied, ranging from radical income inequality to outsized parodies of today's celebrity culture to social commentary on cults and religions – and all of it punctuated with scenes of almost granular detail, small moments of deep-detail cinematic close-ups, as in the moment where a mother is searching for daughter:
Pippi kicks open the door to the kitchen and enters the room handgun first. But she's alone. There's no sound but the metallic, faintly poisonous plink of a leaky faucet into the stainless-steel sink. Pippi flips on the lights, which buzz and fizzle themselves awake as she stealths across the tile. She swings open the door to the walk-in icebox; the light inside is already on. A mostly empty carton of butter macaroon frozen custard lies on the floor beside a bottle of caramel topping and a tipped-over jar sticky with red juice. Pippi picks it up and checks the label. Just as she suspected: maraschino.
The Sky is Yours is a debut of prodigious, almost throwaway inventiveness and storytelling enthusiasm, setting an extremely high bar for the rest of 2018's science fiction. It's the bravura announcement of a major new literary voice.
Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.