Origamy by Rachel Armstrong
Paperback: 256 pages
Publisher: NewCon Press
Reviewed by Steve Ironside
There’s a point in every good roller-coaster ride where the anticipation gives way to acquiescence – that you are no longer in control but are hanging on in there until the end. If it’s a great ride, then that is quickly replaced with an adrenaline-filled rush; where the experience takes over, and rationality is something that only returns afterwards.
So it is with Rachel Armstrong’s debut novel, Origamy.
Mobius is a weaver, a curious and instinctive mix of quantum physicist and circus troupe performer. She can manipulate spacetime to produce threads of exotic particles which allow her to swing and tumble her way to any time, place or reality you could imagine.
Previously, she had suffered some form of trauma, which left her amnesiac. As a result, she is starting over; and so we learn along with her, from her early faltering steps to vast, death-defying trapeze-act swings across the universe. Helping her along the way are her parents, Newton and Shelley, and a collection of colourful characters who reawaken her joy in her art.
Things soon take a darker turn, though. Mobius’ frustrations at her limited ability become replaced by a growing sense that something is wrong, not with her, but with the cosmos. Once that threat is fully realised, a race begins to unite the weavers against a dark menace in a battle where much must be sacrificed if the universe is to be saved.
Then my roller-coaster tipped. Of course the technology of how you travel across the universe isn’t important, so Armstrong doesn’t really explain it. What matters to a weaver is the method, and how it makes you feel. This is borne out in the tensions between Mobius and her parents, who are well named indeed – Newton, the father she dislikes, is logical and dispassionate, whilst her beloved mother Shelley is the romantic, inspiring Mobius with stories of adventures amongst the stars. Mobius, with us in tow, is driven on by the need to prove to her father that there’s more to life than analysis and to meet her mother’s expectations of what a weaver should be like.
As she travels further and further out, what a cosmos we find! At first, it’s dizzying – a new vignette with each swing of the intergalactic trapeze, some disturbing, some glorious. I (somewhat cynically) considered that Armstrong had a series of half-finished ideas, and that this was a way of using them, like leftovers after Christmas dinner.
As I read on though, patterns emerged. This wasn’t a simple travelogue, this was an anthology of analogy. Each thread Mobius cast led to a teaching exercise, both for her and me. Just as her heroine does, Armstrong was weaving – building up a fabric so that when the enemy is finally revealed, and as events in the story start to move at breakneck speed to its climax (which I can’t really mention without totally ruining it), I as the reader have something to cling to.
Yet, despite the epic nature of this tale, it remains a deeply personal one. It is presented as a diary, and so, along with the events Mobius experiences, we get her musings on huge concepts – like evolution, the interconnected nature of life and whether morality is absolute or relative. The kinds of existential questions that lead some to sleepless nights are placed firmly in our path, and form part of the weaving process. In a universe which is infinitely malleable, it seems the thing you must be sure of, is yourself.
When I saw the liner notes for Origamy, I was anticipating something great. With testimonials from Warren Ellis, Adam Roberts, Adrian Tchaikovsky and Justina Robson, this must indeed be something special. Add that Rachel Armstrong is a very smart lady – medical doctor, professor of experimental architecture, and an embarrassment of fellowships. Perhaps I expected Clarke, or Baxter – lots of meaty science with which to grapple. Ultimately, I feel that I’ve learned something about myself or the cosmos by reading Origamy; I’m just not sure what. Yet. As the adrenaline rush recedes and rationality returns, perhaps I’ll be able to work that out. I’ll definitely be returning to this roller-coaster of a story to experience it again – I suspect that with each re-read I’ll spot something new. As a work of fiction it is astonishing – as a debut work, sensational. If you’re serious about pushing limits with your sci-fi reading, file this under “Essential”.