Julie Bertagna, the Exodus Trilogy

71-gaHrRwSLNot too surprisingly, literary fantasies of Glasgow are obsessed by the weather. Glasgow is a West Coast city which benefits from the warming influence of the Gulf Stream while enduring a high level of rainfall, as band after band of low pressure rolls in from the Atlantic, venting cataracts of water on the streets before passing on. The level of light in winter is low, as Alasdair Gray reminds us in his novel Lanark (1981), where a new arrival in an alternative Glasgow called Unthank spends much of his time in a futile quest for the missing sun. Gray’s Glasgow for much of his life was darker, of course, than Glasgow today – coal smoke from household fires and industrial chimneys had blackened the façades, and smogs settled over the city on a regular basis – but light continues to fascinate modern Glaswegians, thanks to the spectacular contrast between daylight hours in midsummer (when the sky never quite gets dark) and midwinter (when the sun sets not much after 3 in the afternoon). Neil Williamson’s Glassholm in The Moon King (2013) is literally tethered to the changing moon, and the moods of the city’s inhabitants are directly affected by its waxing and waning, as are the fabric of their houses and the local atmospheric conditions, which grow steadily more extreme as the full moon approaches. Williamson makes his alternative Glasgow an island, anticipating its eventual detachment from the rest of Scotland by rising seas as the polar icecaps melt. Kirsty Logan’s Glasgow has been totally submerged in The Gracekeepers (2015): the West of Scotland in that novel – and seemingly the rest of the world – has been reduced to a collection of islands, protected by their fiercely conservative occupants against incursions by travellers, pirates and refugees. But it’s in Julie Bertagna’s Exodus trilogy (2002-2011) that the weather truly takes charge, wiping out whole archipelagoes and transforming the city into a working, waterlogged model of the drastic social inequalities that obtain under late capitalism. Being a Young Adult series, the book places the fate of the rain- and wind-lashed survivors in the hands of two generations of intrepid teenagers; but the trilogy also considers the role of stories themselves in shaping the world and its changing weather to a greater extent than any of the other books I’ve mentioned.

zenith-by-julie-bertagnaThe Exodus trilogy is set in the future, 100 years from its date of publication, but Bertagna tells her story in the present tense, and it soon becomes apparent that this is a political as well as an aesthetic decision. The causes of the cataclysmic rise in the level of the world’s oceans are all around us as we read, and even as we’re caught up in the adventures of the young heroine of the first two books, Mara, we’re constantly reminded that her story is part of ours. The second volume, Zenith, even ends with a direct call to arms for its readers, informing them in a Q and A about a range of organizations they can join in the struggle to persuade the world’s governments to take climate change seriously. The effects of that climate change are most dramatically shown in the first book of the trilogy, Exodus, which opens with an island community battling the worst storms in living memory, whose ferocity forces them to stay indoors for weeks at a time, while the ocean eats away at the land they live on, consuming cliffs and fields and neighbouring islands with impartial greed. Mara’s frustration at her forced confinement is well evoked, as is the terror of hearing the sea as it chomps its way up the village street, and the shock of seeing the changes it has inflicted when it finally calms. The ocean continues to pose a threat when she leaves her island and finds her way to new communities: the shanty town of refugee boats that clings to the outer wall of the sky city, New Mungo, lashed by storms and the backwash from passing supply ships; the Netherworld of the Treenesters, whose wooded island is steadily sinking; the pirate city of Pomperoy, whose unexpected presence in mid ocean causes a collision which sparks off a war; the cliff city of Ilira, which exploits fog and darkness to wreck foreign vessels. In the second novel, Zenith, it’s the Arctic climate that dominates the narrative, with its winter night that lasts for weeks, turning water to stone and confining human beings to the shelter of caves and cliffside houses. The weather seems to have stabilized by the third novel, bringing with it the possibility of a new stability in the world’s communities; but the recollection of the turbulent weather of the first two books, and of the political struggles to which that turbulence gave rise, ensures that the reader is left under no illusion that this stability will be easy to maintain.

6742585The Exodus trilogy has been described as an epic, by Bertagna as well as her reviewers. The word is often used loosely, but here it’s appropriate, since the books have all the proper ingredients. The story begins in the middle, after the sea has risen. The roots of this latter-day deluge lie with us, the readers, while another segment of the story involved Mara’s heroic grandmother Mary, whose achievements in saving her people in the face of climatic disaster are often likened to hers. Mara’s adventures, meanwhile, recall those of Virgil’s Aeneas. Like him she leads her people from a place under siege towards the hope of a better future; and as with Aeneas this hope is underpinned by signs from supernatural forces. In her case these signs are inscribed in the surviving stone statues of a sunken city, some of which seem disconcertingly to share her features. Like Aeneas, Mara finds that the new lands to which her destiny takes her are already occupied by hostile peoples, and that she and her fellow exiles must fight for the right to share their territory (though not, as with Aeneas, to take it over). She spends the obligatory period in the underworld, like other epic heroes – two underworlds, in fact: first the shadowy Netherworld beneath the sky city of New Mungo, then (in the second novel, Zenith) the caves of Greenland. The funeral games in honour of Aeneas’s father Anchises have their equivalent in the games she plays among the decaying ruins of the internet, to which she gains access through a quasi-magical crystal ball, and which she knows as ‘the Weave’. And like the Aeneid, her story ends with a showdown, a time of conflict between rival peoples whose outcome will determine the nature of the new society she seeks to establish in the Arctic circle.

{19C8ADC8-EEBB-4735-95BB-E103DD4552AC}Img400In addition to these formal connections with epic, the trilogy also celebrates another art form in which the ancient epics are rooted: oral storytelling. The islanders at the beginning of Exodus pass the long storm season telling each other stories. Some of these are family histories (‘I’ve told you all the stories’ says the oldest islander, Tain, as he goes on to reveal new facts about Mara’s grandmother). Others are fairy tales, which help to stave off the terror of global catastrophe by placing fear at distance, through the power of that ancient incantation, Once upon a time. Mara’s little brother Corey combines the fairy tales she has told him in an effort to express his defiance of the weather: ‘Fee fi fo fum! Huff and puff and blow your house down! […] But the storm won’t get us, will it, Mara? Our house is made of stone.’ But there is a third kind of storytelling, closely related to these two, which is the art of telling the truth. This is the narrative art connected in old epics and tragedies with men and women who have a special relationship with the gods: prophets, heroes, victims, priests and legendary lovers. In Exodus Mara has the unenviable task of telling an inconvenient truth to her fellow islanders: that their only hope of survival is to leave their island and commit themselves to the uncertainties of exile. She succeeds in doing so with the help of evidence gathered from the Weave, which till then she has seen as a playground, a place without consequences in the real world of the island – just like stories themselves. It’s in the Weave that she finds the first clue to the existence of the legendary sky cities, which until that moment were no more than fairy tales, fabrications pandering to the islanders’ baseless dreams of eventual rescue. And it’s in the Weave that she establishes her first connection with the world beyond the island – once again through stories. Her first sight of the virtual equivalent of a sky city evokes in her mind the magical phrase that starts all stories, and it’s this phrase that draws the attention of a passing stranger:

She concentrates harder and the hazy vision resolves into a thick trunk of unimaginably colossal towers, topped by a ferocious geometry of networks and connections. […] The majestic towers look like something out of a fairy tale.

‘Once upon a time,’ Mara whispers, thrilling at the words that always began a story. ‘Once upon a time, in a time out of mind…’

[…] ‘Who are you?’ a voice demands out of the blue, sending jagged shock waves through the cyber haze. […] ‘Who are you? […] And what do you know about once upon a time?’

The stranger’s question is not an idle one. He is a cyberfox, the avatar of a boy called David Stone, who lives in New Mungo, a metropolis designed to protect its inhabitants by raising them on pillars high above the rising ocean. He and his fellow citizens have been denied access to certain essential truths about their past. They know nothing about the decision made by their ancestors to save a small portion of the world’s population at the expense of the rest; or about the continued existence outside the city walls of bands of starving boat people, who have no hope of gaining access to the life of luxury led by what are literally, in these novels, the upper classes. Under these circumstances, Once upon a time becomes a call to arms: knowing what happened in the past, when the cities were built – and knowing what’s happening outside them now, which is the result of what happened then – is the key to a revolution which may or may not overthrow the unjust world order. Telling the story of the abandoned millions becomes David’s lifelong task, just as it was Mara’s; in the third book of the trilogy we learn that he has fomented global rebellion, both within and beyond the cities, by telling stories. Some of these describe the way the world really is, narrating its past and present on the radio waves and planting historical facts like booby traps in the sky cities’ version of the internet, the Noos, to be discovered by his fellow citizens in their travels through cyberspace. Others are drawn from forgotten novels – Madame Bovary, War and Peace – and are designed to awaken the imaginations of potential rebels, to ignite their curiosity about their fellow citizens, about politics, gender, difference, class. All the forms of stories Bertagna incorporates into her epic, then, are intensely political; they are active, they do work in the world, they spark off rebellions large and small. In the course of reading the trilogy, stories become weapons as they were for John Milton and Doris Lessing, ‘alive and potent and fructifying’, capable of unsettling or giving strength to the minds that receive them.

But for Bertagna, as for Milton and Lessing, the process of telling stories is also a process of resisting the inherited stories that constrain or oppress us. Stone in this series – the substance from which cities are built, especially in Scotland – is both a promise and a prison. As I mentioned earlier, Mara’s destiny seems to be set in stone – she sees her image in the statues of Glasgow – and she spends much of her time in Exodus worrying over whether she is simply acting out a prewritten script, imposed on her by some invisible overlord, or acting for herself, in the best interests of the people she leads across the stormy ocean. David Stone, meanwhile, has had his destiny mapped out for him by his father, who expects him to inherit the reins of power in the elitist oligarchy he himself inherited from his father, the architect of the cities in the sky. David constructs a new identity for himself by changing his name; first to Fox, which refers to his cyberfox avatar which roams freely through the cyberspace of the Noos, and whose meeting with Mara first awakens him to the global injustice of which he is a part; then to the Midnight Storyteller, who narrates (among other things) the story of Mara’s adventures. He adopts these names in a bid to take control of his own story, to refuse the version of it told by his father and substitute the hope of change embodied by the young islander. Fox voices his motivation in becoming the Storyteller most clearly in the third book of the trilogy, where he changes his plans for the rebellion against the sky cities in an effort to track down and redeem his tyrannical parents: ‘I am the storyteller, he is thinking. I can tell this tale any way I want. I will not die.’ He does not succeed in ending the tale exactly as he wishes, but this is because he runs up against other people’s tales: that of his mother, for instance, who turns out to have a wholly unexpected backstory of her own. The moment when he discovers his mother’s narrative confirms for him that the world is made up of many stories, over which it is morally indefensible to seek to impose any kind of overall control. If Fox can change his story, others too can change the narratives of their lives and the movements they’re part of. Nothing – not even David Stone’s name – is set in stone. This is one of the hopeful statements made by the trilogy.

Names can be traps, though, if we’re not careful, and a tragic example of this is Fox’s young protégée Pandora. Her name – which is given her by Fox when he first finds her – evokes her confusion about the kind of story she is part of and the kind of future she wants for herself and others. At one point she thinks of herself as the heroine in a fairy tale romance, destined to marry her handsome rescuer – Fox himself; but she quickly learns that Fox regards her as a child, not a possible partner. Pandora also thinks of herself as human, but later learns that Fox thinks of her as a different species. Later still she imagines herself as a warrior princess preparing to seize power in New Mungo after the revolution, but afterwards discovers that Fox only intends her to be the guardian of the city, not its ruler. If Pandora is also a symbol of hope, like her mythical counterpart, it is hope for the people she liberates, not for herself. She is an anarchic resister of other people’s narratives, but she never quite finds a narrative of her own – at least, not within the confines of the trilogy. She represents, in fact, the dangers of an excessive reliance on old stories, such as traditional myths, fairy tales and romances, as well as the excitement of telling new ones. Their power can work to limit our thinking, and Bertagna is never simplistic in her celebration of the liberating power of fiction.

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Glasgow in the 1950s

Other characters in the trilogy are more fortunate than Pandora, in that they succeed in finding new stories to tell about themselves, new tales to embody. This success is encapsulated – as it is with Fox – in their willingness to take charge of their names. At the beginning of the trilogy many of Mara’s fellow islanders have traditional names: Mara’s grandmother Mary, her mother Rosemary, her brother Corey, the fishermen Alex and Jamie. These names link them in an unbroken line of succession to their readers, many of whom have names like these, with their implied associations with family, religion, history, place. One exception is the old islander Tain, who is named both for an old Irish epic and for the silvered back of a mirror, and thus points simultaneously to past and present. Tain gives Mara a mirror in a box, as if enjoining her to see herself as she is rather than as others see her, and tells her stories about her heroic grandmother and the world that was. The old man’s name may also recall the Scots word Teind, which means tithe or tax, and is often used to denote the sacrifice of a life that must be made every seven or nine years in order for the fairies to retain their immortality. Later, however, when Mara arrives in the Netherworld beneath New Mungo, she finds it occupied by the Treenesters – descendants of the Glasgow working classes who were refused admission to the sky city – and that they have named themselves after parts of the drowned city: Gorbals, Broomielaw, Possil, Partick, Candleriggs, Clayslaps. Each evening they reinforce their connection to their lost home by gathering around a fire and shouting their names, which are also Glasgow’s, into the darkness. The Treenesters, then, have renamed themselves – Candleriggs was once called Lily – but remain attached to the stones of the past, implying an inflexibility that threatens to drown them if they stubbornly stick to the land they live on, which is sinking fast.

41upGfvEqVL._AC_UL320_SR212,320_Later in the story, by contrast, young people are always naming themselves, in defiant assertion of their right to tell their own stories. In Aurora, an abused girl in Ilira calls herself by the hopeful name of Candle, in defiance of her father’s insistence that she be Tartoq, the Iliran word for darkness. A young sea gypsy renames himself Pontifix, which means bridge builder or (more ominously) Pope. A wild boy changes his name from Wing, which is the name of Mara’s island, to Wolfscar, which better describes his appearance and allegiances. In the process the boy confirms the trajectory of the series, which is from an identification of people with fixed places – drowned islands, lost cities, non-existent nations – to an identification with other people, not always from the same community (Mara names her daughter Lily after Candleriggs). Mara’s own name does not change, but its meanings shift; at first she associates it with the Hebrew word for bitterness, but it is also the Gaelic word for the sea she makes her own, and evokes her grandmother’s name of Mary (Queen of Scots, Queen of Heaven) without repeating it. Even the names that don’t get changed in Bertagna’s trilogy are fluid, complex in their connections, and thus eminently suited to the complex characters to whom she gives them.

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The Glasgow University Tower

Fluidity is the natural state of a world in deluge, and fluid is inimical to both books and buildings. One of the shocking aspects of Bertagna’s trilogy is the high ‘mortality rate’ (so to speak) for objects that are given a high cultural value in contemporary society: ancient architecture, museum and gallery artifacts, works of literature, science and history. Books get burned to keep people warm (shades of Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow), or lose pages, or get soaked (well, the world is covered in water) and become unreadable. Much-loved urban landmarks subside. I was struck by the buildings Bertagna chose to represent Glasgow: the medieval cathedral, which of course featured as a shelter for the homeless in Gray’s Lanark; the university building, especially its distinctive tower. Their dominance of the otherwise waterlogged Glasgow cityscape gives the book a fantastic air as opposed to a science fictional one – in ‘real life’ other buildings would presumably survive along with them, such as the magnificently brutalist Glasgow University Library, or the Piranesi-esque Royal Infirmary. But Bertagna chooses these ones for good reason: so that the abandonment of a great religious monument, and the collapse of Gilbert Scott’s baronial fantasia, can be measured against the fate of those who really embody the city: its citizens, whose needs are so often subordinated to those of the material cityscape. Seeing these attractive buildings and important books subjected to dreadful abuse in the trilogy is disturbing; but it’s more disturbing, perhaps, to find oneself more upset by their treatment than by that of the novels’ human population. Emmerich used that trick well in the New York library scenes from The Day after Tomorrow, as did the ending of Schaffner’s 1968 movie of The Planet of the Apes where Charlton Heston famously stumbles across the Statue of Liberty sticking up out of the sand. The notion of the artist/reader/viewer’s complicity with the warped values they claim to resist is a repeated theme of radical writers such as Alasdair Gray and China Miéville. Works of art like Bertagna’s cannot help but be complicit with (for instance) global warming, or global capitalism, since they are part of the industrialized human culture that gave rise to both. And like it or not, readers too are complicit; we wear global warming in our clothes, we eat it, drink it, breathe it, and use it to style our hair. What these writers offer us instead is a means of examining our complicity rather than ignoring it altogether, as we usually do.

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Glasgow Cathedral

Bertagna’s best examination of the issue of complicity comes at the point in Exodus when Mara finds herself effectively fighting off the desperate people who struggle to board her vessel as it sails away from the sky city towards what she hopes will be freedom. There are so many desperate boat people trying to board that she is afraid her ship will capsize; but even as she fights to save it she recognizes that she is repeating the worst atrocities of the citizens of New Mungo, who barred the bulk of the world’s population from their refuges because – quite simply – there wasn’t room for them in Paradise. Fluidity, then, extends from stories and names to morality in this series, and Mara finds herself unable wholly to condemn the actions of the world’s elite because she herself has repeated them. Indeed, her actions are morally more reprehensible than theirs, since unlike most of New Mungo’s occupants she knows herself to be a fellow migrant, having fled her island on the same sort of ‘refugee boats’ the would-be stowaways are trying to escape from. It’s a fine and startling moment in Bertagna’s narrative, and lingers with the reader as well as with Mara for the rest of the series.

Fluidity is also a characteristic of human relationships in this trilogy. If stories can be both destructive and constructive, so can affections. Bertagna’s books are full of rivalries in love – in particular, love triangles, like miniature versions of the trilogy itself. In the first book Mara meets the Treenester Broomielaw, who is loved with equal intensity by two men, Possil and Gorbals. Mara herself is loved in that novel by Rowan and Fox, while in the second book, Zenith, her posse of lovers grows more complex, as Rowan and Fox are joined by the gypsy, Tuck. Fox, meanwhile, is adored by Mara and Pandora, just as his grandfather Caledon – founder of New Mungo – is loved by two women, Lily/Candleriggs and Fox’s mother. Each of these sets of relationships represents a choice of paths or possibilities: alliances with one or other of the different communities that make up Bertagna’s postdiluvian world. Each of the single figures who finds him- or herself loved by two others represents a potential bridge between these communities; each rivalry could easily develop into a new alliance or a state of war. The threefold relationships could be taken to represent Bertagna’s refusal to see the world in binaries; the crude binaries of traditional marriage, of us and them, of good and evil. Her new story, in other words, is designed in its every element to offer a different kind of narrative to the ideological ones she has inherited.

The dominant images in the trilogy – at least, the ones I have noticed – are twofold. The first is a series of bridges – most of them broken in the first book, and some of them designed for the exclusive use of an elite. It would have been easy for Bertagna to give bridges wholly positive associations – as ways of connecting the world, mending broken communities, bringing hostile peoples or individuals together – but she rejects this kind of oversimplification. One gigantic, unfinished bridge in Exodus is being constructed by slaves for the sole benefit of the citizens of New Mungo. A web of bridges in Aurora is both a defence system and a deadly trap, despite its ingenuity and loveliness. Once again, then, physical bridges aren’t the point; it’s bridges between living people that need to be built before material bridges can be used for positive purposes.

The other set of images that sticks in the mind are the emblems that accompany each chapter heading, each emblem offering the reader an indication of the character whose point of view will dominate the chapter. In Exodus there are two such emblems: for Mara, a version of the symbol of the City of Glasgow (fish, bell, bird, tree); for David Stone/Fox, a fox’s head in a swirl of wind or water. In Zenith the emblems become more numerous: the North Star for Mara, representing the hope that guides her across the waves in her stolen ship; a moon for Tuck the gypsy, which stands for his favourite weapon, a scimitar; a stylized sun half obscured by clouds for Fox; the globe of the earth for scenes set in the virtual world of the Weave. In the world we inhabit, these elements work together for everyone’s benefit; in Bertagna’s they have all become detached from each other, and only tremendous effort can bridge the oceans that part them. The emblems that introduce each chapter in the final book, Aurora, show the places where each of the communities we’ve got to know have ended up. Again, the gaps between these places need to be bridged, their communities linked if the future of the world is to prove much better than its fractured present. The work of thinking about the relationship between the emblems – what they stand for, the implications of their separation from one another, how the points of view given in the chapters they introduce can be reconciled – is left to the reader, and we become collaborators in the business of assembling Bertagna’s future earth into a coherent whole. Cooperation is the positive reverse side of complicity, and there is no better emblem for cooperation than the unspoken imaginative contract between writer and reader, as they seek to make sense of relations between word and word, or word and image.

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Julie Bertagna

Julie Bertagna was the keynote speaker at a recent conference at the University of Glasgow, co-organised by the conveners of the M.Ed in Children’s Literature and Literacies and the M.Litt in Fantasy. She’s a brilliant speaker, and one of the most interesting aspects of her talk concerned the way her trilogy has become a focus for discussion in schools around the UK in recent years. There’s never been a time when the issues it raises have been more pertinent – global warming, mass migration, the widening gap between rich and poor. She was also fascinating on the difficulty of getting ambitious books like these ones published in the context of the modern YA book market, dominated as it is by the hunt for the next million-seller. One way to ensure such books will continue to be published is to demand and read them. I hope this post will encourage you to do just that.

 

 

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