Favourite re-reads: Listening to Lethe

Lethe Favourite novels can often reflect a particular stage in life. When I first read Lethe (1995) by Tricia Sullivan I was in the process of deliberately hunting out female science fiction authors. I’d recently read and loved Ammonite (1993) by Nicola Griffith and wanted more. I was also a member of the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society. My time at university had awaked me to some social issues which I was following.

I recently decided to listen to Lethe rather than re-read it. I played the unabridged version narrated – or rather acted – by Imogen Church.

Lethe is set in 2166 after a long period of recuperation for Earth, following the Gene Wars. Human-kind genetically altered viruses and experimented on fellow humans. The result was nuclear war, the decimation of Earth and the creation of new humanoid species. A planet-wide governance by an oligarchy of once-human brains in permanent computer interface allowed so-called “pure” humans to survive in rezzes, protected my mirror-fields. An off-shoot of humans, known as altermoders (who have gills and develop a skin for underwater swimming), can telepathically communicate and network with dolphins. Meanwhile, an astronomical body called Underkohling is found on the outer rim of the solar system which contains gates to other parts of the universe.

Our story features Jenae, an Australian altermoder, who is trying to make sense of the discoveries the dolphins show her, and Daire, who slips through the ‘fourth gate’ while on a mission of exploration, and what he finds on the planet he wakes up on. Jenae learns the truth of what has happened in the past, while experiencing bigotry and grief. She finds out that power corrupts but not everything is black and white when it comes to identity. The planet’s masters are not who they seem. Meanwhile, Daire finds the supposed descendants of the criminals involved with the Gene Wars and learns about love and responsibility. He also discovers what appears to be sentient trees. The leader of the descendants, an impossible girl called Tsering, must come to terms with a terrible fate, brought about by the corporations during the Gene Wars back in Earth’s past. The plot strands come together as Colin – a forth key character and scientist and colleague of Daire – meets Jenae. They escape Earth to find themselves on this new and viable planet.

I remember being really excited to read a story where the heroine not only swam with dolphins, but became like them and could communicate with them. I remember being impressed that science over-comes politics and corporations and has the potential to save humanity. I was also impressed by the small details in the writing. I remember at the time, thinking that a male science fiction writer wouldn’t have mentioned insects so many times. I was probably wrong.

Listening to Lethe was probably a mistake. Not that I didn’t enjoy it, but the story wasn’t as personal to me as I recalled. I’ve changed a lot. Sullivan’s world is interesting enough and has some nice ideas (how the corporate criminals tried to get away with their crimes, and the bigotry between sub-species for example), but it has dated badly in light of the modern communication age. Computers are clunky and they still use discs to transport information. Her writing is great, however. Her world-building is by discovery for the most part, and not exposition.

The cast of characters is impressive and mostly cliché-free. Jenae and Tsering aren’t the only strong women, but in the end I thought that Lethe should have been more about Jenae. Her story almost fades out as the conclusion arrives and Colin’s character takes over the story. Sullivan presents a scenario which provides Jenae with a potential release to her situation but then fails to explore it.

The details that Sullivan includes in her story are what takes it above a standard SF tale. The mention of the aforementioned insects, the way Jenae’s twin falls for a ‘wrong-un’, the lives of the dolphins, and more aren’t features you’d come across in most genre fiction. Many other passages too. The over-riding theme appears to be that humanity is reliant on nature and not separate from it. Meddle or destroy nature and it will destroy you. The other is identity. Jenae’s twin doesn’t have her altermode ability. The people running the planet are nameless brains. The sentient trees can show you ghosts of your past. What makes you, you? A question all good science fiction should ask. However, I was torn between being interested in the characters, themes and the future Sullivan created and being disappointed by Colin’s growing influence in the story. It was almost as if the author lost faith in her female leads.

Also, I found Church’s narration distracting. The cast of characters from around the world and of different ages meant that Church put on a range of accents and tones. Colin was a pompous Englishman. Janae a headstrong Aussie. There were children and middle-aged Asian men. Not that she couldn’t do accents, but they distracted from what they were saying. I’d have preferred it if all the characters had spoken in Church’s own voice.

I’m more analytically minded now than I was in 1995, despite not long being out of university where I’d completed an MSc. I think that if I’d read (and not listened) to Lethe for the first time today I’d have enjoyed it thoroughly, but it wouldn’t have impacted me personally as much as it did back in the day. There are some cracking science fiction themes here and plenty of interesting characters. Lethe is a great book by a great author, although this audio version is a tad mis-judged.

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