SKYWARD INN by Aliya Whiteley (BOOK REVIEW)
“I think of you in the cafeteria, holding my gaze. We’ve spent every lunchtime together for over a year. I feel the places where our languages don’t quite meet, but I believe there’s a deeper state than surface understanding, and I feel it with you most when you make the effort to pretend for my sake. Our lunches have become the thing I look forward to. You make me feel seen.”
“That’s all it takes to turn someone against you – one instance of not being the thing they want you to be.”
Readers familiar with Aliya Whiteley’s previous work will know when opening a new one of her books to expect something completely wonderful and utterly different from her previous stories. Skyward Inn (2021), her latest novel, does not disappoint on either front. Following on from the slyly subversive reimagining of Douglas Adams and Doctor Who in last year’s Greensmith (2020), Whiteley has returned with another triumph that defies easy categorisation and will haunt the reader long after the final page. Skyward Inn is perhaps her most powerful, moving and keenly disturbing work yet. What starts as a quiet rural post-apocalyptic novel with shades of John Wyndham and Keith Roberts soon reveals itself to be something much stranger and more disconcerting. Simply put, I think Whiteley has written one of the great SF stories about alienness, colonialism, identity, the impossibility of true communication, and the thoroughly human fear of being alone. It’s up there with Stanisław Lem’s Solaris (1961), Ursula Le Guin’s ‘Vaster Than Empires And More Slow’ (1971) and Gene Wolfe’s The Fifth Head Of Cerberus (1972).
It is actually incredibly difficult to describe the plot of Skyward Inn without giving away spoilers. Normally I’m not bothered by this, but in the case of Skyward Inn I feel it is important for the reader to share the characters’ journeys without prior knowledge, to let Whiteley subtly reveal the secrets of the novel in her own time. I am already anticipating my reread, given that the ending of the novel reconfigures all that has come before. In much the same way that careful rereads of Wolfe’s The Fifth Head Of Cerberus reveals the careful and labyrinthine games that Wolfe is playing with narrative and unreliable narrators, I am convinced that subsequent reads of Skyward Inn will reveal more and more about the subtle ways Whiteley manipulates narrative and story in this surprisingly complex work. Suffice to say the novel tells the story of Jem, who runs the Skyward Inn in the Western Protectorate, a part of rural Devon that has cut itself off from the rest of the world and the Coalition, with her Qitan friend Isley. Jem fled to Qita when it was first discovered, before the Qitans surrendered without a fight to the coalition, to escape the sense of her life closing in after the birth of her son. Now, she serves the townsfolk Jarrowbrew, an imported Qitan drink, reminisces about her time on Qita with Isley, and struggles to mend her relationship with her estranged son Fosse, now looked after by her brother Dom. However, her quiet life is disrupted when Fosse befriends settlers who have come from outside the Protectorate and Isley’s Qitan friend Won comes to stay. This sets off a series of events involving a mysterious plague, a missing dog and a crime of passion that will eventually challenge everything Jem thinks she knows about Earth, Qita and her troubled relationships.
Skyward Inn is a novel that explores ideas around colonialism, and humanity’s attitude towards the alien Other. The novel explores how imperialist expansion destroys the culture of the indigenous populations whilst simultaneously destroying the soul of the invaders. Humanity’s relationship with the Qitans is built on old school imperialism. Jem was part of an initial wave of people who were sent to Qita to distribute leaflets proclaiming Earth’s peaceful intentions, whilst the Coalition was setting up extensive mining operations. Jem meets Isley because he has learned human languages so he can get a job working at their base. But as the novel continues and we learn more about the Qitans and their culture, though Jem and Isley’s relationship and through Fosse’s relationship with a Qitan guide, it becomes clear just how much the humans and Qitans have tragically failed to communicate with each other. Humanity, seeing the Qitans as a homogenous mass, drastically misunderstand how Qitan culture and life works, whilst the Qitans take the humans’ self-aggrandising propaganda entirely literally, not realising how far from the truth it actually is. By the end of the book, it’s clear that the Qitan surrender to the Coalition has a very different meaning and outcome to the one the humans originally understood.
But it is not just human and Qitan communication that is fraught. Skyward Inn is full of fractious relationships defined by people failing to communicate with each other. Jem can’t communicate with her son, and struggles to bridge the gap that her initial abandonment caused. She is also deeply in love with Isley but unable to admit it to herself or him, a situation that is only exacerbated by the presence of Won. Fosse defines himself by his pain and loneliness, and his fear of being alone leads him to do terrible things. These interpersonal relationships are echoed by the troubled relationship between the Western Protectorate and the Coalition, as the Protectorate attempts to define itself against a frighteningly technologically advanced outside and ends up wallowing in its own nostalgia, unable to find a meaningful place for itself that doesn’t rely on a retreat to a glorified past golden age. Throughout the novel, Whiteley explores the thoroughly human need to belong and to be a part of something with the equally human need to define oneself against others. All of the characters in Skyward Inn face this dilemma – is it better to be alone and cling onto your own identity, or to surrender your individuality so that you can have the intimacy and acceptance you crave? Whiteley offers no easy answers, but takes the reader and her characters to surprising and thought-provoking places.
None of this quite gets across just how strange Skyward Inn is. Body horror is a recurring theme throughout Whiteley’s work, and here she provides us with some of her most disturbing work since the fungal horror of The Beauty (2014). However the weirdness is balanced by Whiteley’s beautiful prose, another standard feature of her work, and her abiding love of language. With its references to isolation, plagues and quarantine, the novel is full of uncanny echoes of the present day UK. And as ever her character work is deft and complex. Even by her previous high standards, Skyward Inn is something special, a vital contribution to modern speculative fiction and a novel to be read and reread and pondered at length.