I was pleased that Deep Wheel Orcadia by Harry Josephine Giles won the 2022 Arthur C. Clarke Award. For one thing, at some point during the final months of her life Maureen read the book and was impressed. Secondly, it is formally innovative, more so than any other book I can remember being in contention for the Clarke Award, and I firmly believe that such literary experimentation should be celebrated and rewarded.
But it is only now that I have read the book myself. Despite the relatively few pages, and the high percentage of white space per page, it is not an easy book to read.
As probably everybody knows by now, it is structured as a series of poems written in the Orcadian dialect:
“I sayed tae see wiss at wir best,
no this,” he says. Noor wis waatched
the meeteen, takken notts. Sheu laaghs,
“It’s better than a research committee.”
Each poem is accompanied on the same page by a prose translation into standard English:
“I said to see us at our best, not this,” he says. Noor had watched the meeting, taking notes. She laughs. “It’s better than a research committee.”
But that is to make the whole thing way too simple, and I deliberately chose a relatively straightforward example. Even here there are things to pay attention to. There are two near-identical words with very different meanings, for instance: “wiss” is translated as “us” while “wis” is translated as “had”. Though elsewhere in the novel you will encounter “wis” being translated as “was”, which suggests it is a form of the verb to be, though not necessarily always the same form. The other thing to note is that Noor is a visitor to the space station, so her speech is rendered in standard English. Even this can be deceptive, as your eyes suddenly light upon familiar spellings it can feel as though the whole poem is suddenly opening up to you, becoming accessible. It isn’t.
The problem is that translation is a creative act. It is not simple substitution. As the use of “wis” to mean either “was” or “had” in the above passage indicates, there is never a precise match between words in two different languages. Even languages as close as Orcadian and English can differ in subtle and often not so subtle ways. Take, for instance, the translation that Giles offers for the very next verse after the one quoted above:
Eynar’s head is throbfestering from ringcirclebanging, crowdquarrellurching debate.
The equivalent line on Orcadian is:
Eynar’s heid is tiftan fae ringan and rallyan debate.
So we might conclude, for instance, that “tiftan” could be rendered as either “throbbing” or “festering”, while “ringan” and “rallyan” each have three possible translations. Giles’s habit of running the alternative translations together both emphasises the point and confuses the issue further. After all, throbbing and festering are not synonyms for each other, so which we choose is going to affect the thrust of the entire sentence. There is, of course, the further issue that there are several other synonyms for both throbbing and festering which might, by implication, come into play here. Given that we don’t have the clue that pronunciation might provide, since that avenue is closed to us (unless we are lucky enough to hear Giles, or another Orcadian, read the work aloud), our only guide in making the choice is context. But context doesn’t really help here, since the collision of throbbing and festering takes us straight into two other congeries of not-entirely-synonymous words. In fact in this one sentence we are looking at something like 18 possible readings, and that is assuming that we don’t take into account other possible alternatives for the words on offer.
Sometimes the choice doesn’t matter, or at least it doesn’t seem to. But that’s not always the case. And anyway, can we safely assume that the word choices we make are not just what we would expect to find, and that another choice, which may feel more awkward to the ears of a native English speaker, might not be more appropriate or more revealing?
What we are offered in the English passages, therefore, is not a translation of the Orcadian. It is an opportunity for interpretation, but with no way of knowing how reliable our particular interpretation might be.
At its simplest, therefore, the novel tells us one story in Orcadian and another story in English. We expect one to be a translation of the other, so we expect them to be forms of the same story. But how do we know? And in fact, even assuming that the English resonates with the Orcadian, the multiplicity of choices we have to make in simply reading the English tells us that we are never reading exactly what the Orcadian is saying to us. And that very multiplicity of choices suggests that rather than two versions of something like the same story, what we encounter is in truth an almost infinite variety of versions.
I don’t, therefore, really know what I read. It was thrilling for what it was doing, and even more for what it was making me do. But what it was remains obscure. Two visitors arrive on a wheel-shaped space station somewhere out in the galaxy, a place as distant, as in-turned, as distinct as the Orkney Islands. Here we encounter the trappings of isolated life: tentative romances, tedious local bureaucracy, petty secrets, local rituals and almost orgiastic dances. There is an ordinariness but an inwardness in all we see. And yet what gives life to the station and what threatens it lies outside, in the silent, deadly ocean of space. Just as the Orcadians live and die by thrusting their frail craft out onto the raging sea, so these Orcadians make their living by sailing out into space to harvest wrecked craft and the mysteries of the deep. Here, the thing harvested is known simply as Light, an everyday thing except in deep space where the only light is artificially generated. Light is the essential element in sight, yet when the creatures of Light invade the great wheel they are unseen by its inhabitants.
It is a mysterious story, one whose greatest emphasis is upon the mundane, and whose most science fictional elements are, contrary to the normal practices of the genre, the things least seen, least explained, least rationalised. It is, we must remember, a poem in the original Orcadian, and poetry often progresses by mood, by allusion, by symbol. Story presented through such a mechanism does not work in the way of the usually plain prose of most science fiction. And the prose we have here is less reliable, less accessible simply because it leaves the reader with assumptions to make, choices on offer, that can drastically change the very thing we are reading.
Stories are made up of words, but here the words are not whole, not complete, not reliable. So what does that make of the story?