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Adam Roberts is the author of a growing number of science fiction novels, short stories, essays and other writings. This site contains not just his blog, but everything you could ever want to know about everything Adam has ever published. And more...

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Jupiter Magnified

Published By:
PS Publishing, UK [2003]
£25.00 Hb / £10.00 TPb
ISBN10s:
1902880579 / 1902880560
Buy from: PSPublishing.co.uk
Synopsis:

Jupiter, magnified so as to fill half the sky, appears in the night sky suddenly. All the world sees it. From that night onwards, life continues as best it can under this sublime and overwhelming apparition in the heavens. People everywhere struggle to come to terms with what the apparition means, with how it can have happened. Is it portent of the end of the world? Or something more positive, something magical? Is it a freak of physics, or is it a message - and if so, how can it be decoded? For Stina Ekman, a frustrated poet and e-zine editor, this extraordinary omen seems to promise fearful and exotic changes for her blocked life.

Stina’s narrative recounts the impact of this inexplicable event upon an ordinary life. All her life she has been fascinated by light and the effects of light on life; this enormous new fact in the sky forces her to confront the routines into which her life has fallen, the silence which has infected her poetry, the possibilities of existence itself.

This complex novella interrogates the way symbol and image govern our lives; the ways in which we attempt to bring meaning to the things with which life presents us; the balance we strive for between purity and admixture. It is an exploration the ways poetry, science and fiction might interact.

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Adam Says:

This novella began as a short story. In fact, to go further back, it began as a dream I had in which Jupiter appeared in the sky over my house, its gorgeously marbled and rusty-brassy layering magnified to prodigious size. I didn't understand the dream, and wrote the story to explain it, but that element of the elusiveness of absolute meaning remains core to fable that resulted. In the book, Jupiter appears enormously magnified in Earth's skies in the very near future. and the story is given over - mostly - to a young, dissatisfied Swedish poet who records her account of living under the strange apparition. The book does explain the appearance, but hopefully it goes beyond a simple explanation.

I think that this novella is about poetry. By this I mean more than that it includes poetry in it, or describes the state of mind of a poet, although it does both these things. I mean that it is about the way poetic meaning evades precision of definition. The way a poetic symbol (here Jupiter) focuses and articulates without holding, delimiting or murderously dissecting. It's a tricky balance, to express imprecision without simply becoming imprecise (vague, windy, evasive), and without simply cheating the reader (so that she ends the tale going "wha-what?" - I hope that's not the way a reader ends this tale). But in this project above all I find my literary-critical persona incompetent to comment. If I could write actual poetry as well as the poets I admire and read, then I would: but the organisational side of my brain (and narrative is a good way of organising, this follows that follows the other) prevents me. That and - it goes, I'm forced to concede, without saying - a lack of the necessary genius. Ah well.

The preface to Jupiter Magnified has been written by James Lovegrove, a shamefully overlooked SF writer of power, subtlety, maturity and range. He argues that the book is about endings and about light. I think he's right.

An Extract: Chapter One

Jupiter, magnified so as to fill half the sky, appeared in the night sky suddenly. The whole world saw it. We all saw it. One moment the sky was the usual night sky, the usual stars that we had all seen so many times. The usual moon, the usual clouds making their slow, shredded way. It was a warm night. We were out together, walking, Dun with his arm about my shoulder. But we weren't even looking at the sky. Our eyes were down, watching out feet on the ground before us, stepping over grass silvered with moonlight.

Then, like a switch flicked, the light changed. The drained pewter light of the moon went off, and there instead was a vivid orange-yellow-red. I thought—I swear this is what I thought—that a blood vessel had broken in one of my eyes. Then Dun said: 'My God, look up, look up.'

Jupiter filled well over half the sky. From away far to the left, where the woods began, to far over on the right, where the chimneys of a factory building poked over house roofs. Jupiter's arc reached fully up into the zenith of the sky, it constituted an absolutely cataclysmic semicircle. It was like the apparition of a god, swallowing half the night sky, glorious, bright: every swirl in the gas-giant's atmosphere could be easily discerned, every shred of cloud. Jupiter's moons, suddenly as large as our own moon in our own sky, drifted slowly across the image, throwing sharp dark shadows on the orange-gold-red colours of the planet.

I spun around, and there was open black sky again, although the starlight was now dimmed by this new source of light. I turned again, and there it was. Jupiter.

It was the damnedest thing.

And your memory of that moment? Mine is one of a spectacular invasion. It had been a romantic walk, over the moonlit field between the woods and the village. There we had been, his arm propped on my shoulder. Then this weird vision, and we automatically stepped apart. It was like we were broken from one into two.

He said, 'Jesus.' And then, after a little while: 'Jesus Christ.'

I said: 'We must be imagining it.'

'We can't both be imagining it,' said Dun.

'Maybe we can.' I tried shielding my eyes, focusing on one part of the gleaming orange-yellow surface. Then I shut one eye at a time. The huge vision was banded with browns, yellows, with white eddies in a vivid, slow-motion swirl. The top of the great red spot was visible over the tops of the trees.

'Both of us hallucinating simultaneously?' Dun went on. 'How?'

I turned slowly on my heels. Over to the left, the horizon line of the planet came down sharply, marking off Jupiter itself from the night sky, so huge an arc as to be almost a straight line. To the left of that line, the woods continued under the paled stars. I was struck by the silhouette of a single tree at the edge of the forest, one tall pine picked out against a vast whorly stripe of luminescent orange. That little shape on the horizon, tiny as a thorn, sticking up into an alien sky. Then, a little belatedly I confess, I had the sense of it; I saw the point of it, as it were — its size, I mean. The sheer ungetaroundable size. The sweep of my eye. 'Maybe its a joint hallucination,' I said. 'You and me caught up in the moment, connected with the romance of it. Maybe its a projection from our subconscious. An emanation, spiritus anima.'

'Stina,' he said. 'Please. That's lame.'

'No, I'm serious. I am. We've been together, what, a six-month? Here we are, a whole week to be spent together, just the two of us, none of the distractions of work, it's suddenly getting big. We're both caught up in how big—and, then, all the anxiety that goes with that, Dun. Here it is, hallucinated into our joint-imaginations.'

He stared upwards it. Then, a little awkwardly, he came over to me and hugged me. 'But,' he said. 'But. Why Jupiter? Of all things?'

'Don't know,' I said. 'Who can say why?' I stared up at it again. Cod-psychology. 'We must be hallucinating it because it has some significance to our, you know, subconscious. So we have to ask, what does it, uh, symbolise for you? For me?'

'What does it symbolise for me?' He stepped away again, looking upwards. 'I've never thought about it. Jupiter—it doesn't really mean anything to me.'

*

The light was wrong. My poetry has been mostly about light. That’s what I’m famous for; that’s what we may—laughingly, perhaps—call my theme. Years and years trying to understand light, and here in an instant it changed. Poems About Light, I thought: redundant, superseded, over-thrown. The Poems About Light had been about Greek light of course, not Northern light, but it was all now changed, all now messed with the lava-lamp sludge of Jupiter shining over everything.

*

In the end, we consulted the ultimate arbiter of reality: we went back and watched TV. Submitting to the apotheosis of the unreal, the simulacrum of real-life, to determine whether we were hallucinating. We were perfectly aware of the irony of it.

I started to feel spooked as we walked back through the field, walking away from it, seeing only the ghastly ruddy light on the grass before us. Then, when we reached the town, the same light washing the pavements and buildings. It had a weird personal edge to it. Haunted. I kept looking over my shoulder, as if it were a spectral apparition following us, dogging our footsteps. 'Quit that,' said Dun. 'Quit looking over your shoulder every five seconds. You're giving me the heebie-jeebies.'

'I am?' I said. 'Or it is?'

Back in my flat the first channel we tried was a nature documentary. White skies, white ice, and a polar bear crawling on all fours in the middle distance. It stopped, reared up, looking puny in all that expanse of white, and Dun's thumb hit the remote control. The next channel was a plastic-complexioned man folding his fingers together and looking seriously at the screen. Behind him, like the wallpaper of the studio, was a TV still of Jupiter looming over Stockholm. Another channel, and a frenetic reporter clutched the glans-like microphone close to her mouth and gabbled something live from the street outside the studio. We weren't really listening to her words, too struck by the sight of the new astronomical object. A few passers-by dotted the road behind her, one standing neck-craned looking upwards; but two or three others more hypnotised by the cameras, the altars of the god TV.

All the channels were the same. By the time we flicked back to the polar bear even that was gone. 'We're not the only ones hallucinating it,' said Dun. 'Unless,' I countered, 'we're hallucinating the TV images as well.'

*

But we weren't. I rang the bell of my temporary next-door neighbour, and she was huddled in front of the telly too. 'Isn't it freaky?' she said, ushering us both in. The three of us sat before the screen in her front room. There was no news, no news as such, of course; just images of Jupiter lowering over the whole hemisphere, swollen and filling our skies. Just interviews with hastily brought-in experts whose expertise went exactly as far as not understanding the phenomenon. But still we sat there together. We could, any one of us three, have looked out of the window and seen Jupiter directly; but for some reason we preferred to watch it on the flickering screen. I suppose that was for the same reason that Dun and I preferred to sit in my neighbour's nicotine stench-filled flat rather than my own clean one. There's a certain instinct to huddle together in the face of the unknown.

*

Come the morning it had sunk in the skies. But even by noon of the next day it had not fallen entirely under the horizon; its hump of brown-scarlet leant a broad stain of orange to the summer blue. It was a Sunday, and I remember feeling thoroughly at a loose end. Dun and I went for a walk, but somehow no longer arm-in-arm. The woods, romantic under the bony white moon, seemed stark and blank in the strained daylight: forbidding. We went past a church which I was surprised to find empty. 'You'd think,' I said to Dun, 'that given something like that in the sky, this building would be packed out.'

The pastor stood outside with the double doors open, and the aisle leading the eye directly to the altar. I knew the pastor a little. It was a small village, even though I stayed there only two or three weeks out of the year. Even though I was not in any sense a religious person.

'It was the strangest night,' he said, after the pleasantries. 'The strangest. I thank heaven for my faith in strange times like this.'

'There's nobody come to your church,' said Dun. Never a tactful man.

'No,' said the pastor, unrufflable. 'People need a little space to digest something like this, a little space to simply sit and stare. But when they take on board the weight of it, the great weight of it, they will be back.'

Then, to prove that at least one person had come to her normal church service, Mrs Horlen came out to join us. She was an arc-backed old lady of ferocious religious devotion who could occasionally be seen scuttling from one side of the village to the other. She was holding a Bible with both her hands. 'Another passage here, pastor,' she said. 'In the prophecies of Isaiah.'

'Do you think that's altogether responsible?' Dun asked the pastor. He couldn't keep a slightly priggish tone out of his voice, but then that was absolutely characteristic of Dun, that priggishness. 'To encourage superstitious responses to something like this? Surely we need to try and foster a reasoned, a rational reaction to—to the thing?' He looked around, his face apologetic, blinking like a fool. ' There could be all sorts of panic.'

The pastor started to say something, his hands up placatingly, but Mrs Horlen thrust her deep-lined face in between the two of them. 'Have you seen the sign and still do not believe? What more will it take? Now that the end is upon us, that the skies are turned to blood, that the pagan gods have taken command of the skies?' Her voice was high-pitched but with an edge of croakiness, and so long a sentence left her coughing.

We walked on.

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