Divine Endurance is one of my favourite novels. Like Neuromancer, its elegant balance of sci-fi and fantasy makes for a vivid world.
Divine Endurance (1984) is one of the better known works of Gwyneth Jones (aka Ann Halam). A reviewer once gushed that ‘no synopsis can possibly convey the strength of the intelligence and the clarity of the emotion’, but let’s have a shot!
Take a far-future, post-apocalyptic setting. There remains a last outpost of human society on a peninsula in South-East Asia. From the wastelands appears an odd pair: a small brown cat called Divine Endurance and a child named Chosen Among the Beautiful, known as Cho. They are cyborg orphans of the old world.
We were the best. We were the most wonderful… all our model. There was nothing we could not do, if our person asked us. They valued us above anything, and cared for us dearly. Which is why, of course, we survived when all the world was swept away. We could give them anything they wished for…
Has it ever occurred to you, Divine Endurance, that whatever swept the world away it happened soon after our model… first left the palace?
In its vivid setting and characters, Divine Endurance has an abiding beauty and a strangeness that is at once enchanting and confounding. The peninsulan society is a complex melting pot, its people wrestling with or perhaps giving way to tradition and corruption. This is a profoundly matriarchal world, where female seers rule unseen from behind curtains, and most males are made both eunuchs and household slaves, called ‘boys’. Jones’ explorations of gender and ecology are enthralling.
Much of the plot centres on political strife and civil war. The Peninsula has for some time been subjugated by the Rulers, teched-up castaways from the old world. The young woman Derveet, daughter of the rotting aristocracy, re-starts a revolution while ancient families and alliances crumble.
Things have been running down for a long time…
The story becomes a kind of ‘meditation on utopia’ about an Earth in decline. Cho is a gynoid created to fulfil the very desires of the human heart, yet her arrival on the peninsula and her attachment to Derveet only seem to speed the decay. Even the supremely cunning cat, scheming to reunite Cho with her twin brother, is caught up in this cosmic downturn. Is this strange technology a failure? Or does it somehow reveal the flaws of those who encounter it?
Divine Endurance is crafted with crystalline beauty but is certainly dense. Think of Dune’s intricacy packed into much less than half the space. One reviewer wrote, ‘There is such a thing as making the reader work too hard’! Jones’s writing has the most exacting precision yet frequently serves to keep the reader guessing or — I prefer — imagining. I find this kind of challenge and stimulation leads me into a world of great imagination and a story of great wonder.
In her adult novels Gwyneth Jones is a writer of nearly unforgiving intensity, and on occasion an incompetent story-teller… But the rewards for understanding her are so considerable that the task of learning how to do so seems light enough. (SF and Fantasy Encyclopedia)
Along with two other complex sci-fi novels, Escape Plans (1986) and Kairos (1988), Divine Endurance forms part of a thematic trilogy ‘featuring profoundly divided women who descend into the world and redeem it’.
Gwyneth Jones is now releasing some of her other novels free via her blog.
Categories: Written by Arthur
Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.