A book reviewer is the first line of defense for the public. Well, actually, the second; even as a critic there have been novels that the marketing team was kind enough to inform me would be travesties to my sense of good and bad by their inscriptions on the back of the book. Still, the result is that very often something will make it onto my shelves without really having any idea as to what it is. A Sci-Fi pitch, Fantasy cover art, an image filter that makes Rowen Sivertsen look like Tom Baker, and a back cover blurb that could describe anything between a Blade Runner-esque story and “The Little One Said Roll Over”, and no word of mouth.
To top off my confusion, Birch Tree Road Publishing is located in Norway. Not knowing Norwegian myself, I couldn’t even tell whether The Rise and Fall of the Perfect Creation was a subtitle or a translation. Ultimately, there was only one way for me to learn anything about this book: to open it up and read it.
I hope that by this point I’ve instilled the utter cluelessness, the curiosity and faith that I put into opening this book and reading the first page. I say this not to scare you from it, but because Shianshenka is a particular kind of book, one that I was right to be uncertain about prior to it completely drawing me in. This isn’t the kind of book I would normally pick up; luckily for me, it is the kind of book I like to read from time to time. Generally I prefer the threat to exist at the start of the book, the Science Fiction to exist as much in the execution of the novel as the setup, and a main group of characters to be discernible, even if there are many.
What Shianshenka is, however, is an anthropological tale. It tells the story of the race of the Zhongzi on Shianshenka, from their original creation by human hands through discoveries such as language, civilization and the ability to reproduce more often than dying, through colonization, technology, and ultimately ideological warfare. In the midst of all this, the audience learns things that the Zhongzi know: how they move, how they eat, how they reproduce.
Shianshenka starts slowly. The first twenty one pages (after the prologue) are spent developing language and society. As the “characters” at this point can just barely be termed as sentient, and the narration is very tight around the viewpoint of the characters, it can sometimes be a chore to read - the kind of chore that you know is going to result in an improvement in your life, but you still don’t rush to face it.
I actually didn’t rush to finish Shianshenka at all, though I did find myself reading more pages at a clip with each day. It’s a slow novel, one without heavy action and where the progression of society over time is more important than any single character. I read it slowly, first a page at a clip, until I was reading 30 pages a day by the time I finished it. I certainly found myself gripped in the story, eager to find out what was going to happen on the next page, for pages at a time - but not for chapters at a time. This was helped by the urging on the last page: “When humans return decades later, they find only one survivor, a messenger sent up into the sky to bring the story of the Zhongzi to whoever might find him”. While it’s normally a bad idea to give away the ending of your book, this knowledge was a large source of the tension. It provided a question: How could this possibly happen to such a thriving society? Is it war? Overpopulation and famine? Mutation? Or something worse?
I find Shianshenka to be the kind of book to visit once a day, the way you might visit a digital pet to see its progress. You chart its growth, you gauge its mood, you enjoy its company, but unless you’re one of the few who are seriously drawn to it, you don’t dally over-long, and look for something a little more worldly to occupy you for longer stretches. It’s not built to be an action piece where you’re constantly wondering how each character is going to survive, but one to give you time to think. It’s a social experiment, and a xenobiological exposition as well.
Now, let it be said for the record, I hate chapter breaks. There are certain times, such as my first week reading this book, that I’ll actually stop at a chapter break. More often, I tend to just keep reading as though they were yet another point of view change. I tolerate them from Stephen King because the passages he includes between chapters and short, and from Mira Grant because they’re written in the same style as the rest of the book. The songs that punctuated many of the chapter and other breaks of Shianshenka, on the other hand, I largely skipped. I just don’t like disrupting the flow of what I’m reading that much, and when I did stop and return, I was more interested in what was happening next than the song that the character was telling.
This method of reading works perfectly fine for Shianshenka as you don’t actually miss any important details. If you prefer to take your time reading and savor these breaks, however, you might find that the book is even more suited to you than it would seem so far. This is because ten of the songs included in the novel were recorded and posted to Youtube, including brilliant animated images. Like the book, these short music videos (which can be found on Youtube or by scanning a QR code inside the book) are slow, colorful and moody, and spare no effort. While they have no flashy visuals or million dollar budget, they’re on the outer end of what someone at home could produce, meaning that they clearly took both effort and talent, both in the audio and video side of the production. This is something that I’d like to see more authors who are talented in other realms do with their books.
If Star Wars is the rock and roll of Science Fiction, Doctor Who the Disco and Star Trek the marching band, Shianshenka is the easy listening channel. It’s the Discovery channel documentary soundtrack of Sci-Fi novels, with native music spread throughout in the form of the actual soundtrack of the book. If you’re a fan of anthropological Fantasy and Sci-Fi, this book might be something for you to spend hours on learning about the various Zhongzi (there is a cheat sheet in the Appendices to help you keep track, by the way). If this isn’t the type of book you read every day, but you enjoy scenes like Tolkien telling you about the lives of elves and goblins or experiencing new worlds in general, you might enjoy this at a slower pace, something that you check into when you’re in the mood. In either case, if you’re a fan of books set in strange, unusual places and your enjoyment of the book doesn’t hinge on action and other immediate results, it’s something that’s worth checking out.