THE CADUCA by Elaine Graham-Leigh (BOOK REVIEW)
The old adage that good sci-fi is about present times but cloaked in a futuristic setting proves its worth with The Caduca – set 900 years into the future – and validates the book’s claim on the reader’s attention. The author, Elaine Graham-Leigh, spins an engaging tale that resonates with contemporary issues around legacies of colonialism, resistance and the treachery of politicos.
As small planets go, Benan Ty has little to boast of despite having long shaken off the formal shackles of Terran rule. Once ruled from the planet of Benan, its erstwhile colonial masters maintained influence for thirty years by installing a compliant government and the trappings of democracy. Then the unthinkable happened and a left-wing President was elected, resulting in a military coup (think Allende and Pinochet). A guerrilla force, ViaVera – ‘true road’ – emerges in opposition but its strategy of trying to bomb itself into power galvanises the junta’s resolve to crush any dissent.
A decade passes before the regional superpower, Chi!me, decides to intervene and broker a peace accord. Enter their prize diplomat, Quila, whose track record suggests she might succeed in bringing ViaVera and Benan Ty’s government to the negotiating table (think IRA and British government or FARC and government of Colombia).
Quila knows very little about the Jeba, Benan Ty’s indigenous people who have been pushed to society’s margins. Their belief in the Caduca as an avatar of liberation is poorly understood by ViaVera who adopt it for dressing their intransigent leader in mystical garb. But a Jeba character, Ihanakan, tries to explain that the Caduca is about bringing the oppressed together in a struggle that offers an alternative to State power: ‘They fight, you fight, you trick each other and for what? The rule of the prison? At the centre there is only emptiness and you know it is so. But we Jeba, we are outside the maze and we can see it clearly.’
The plot moves up a gear with Quila’s arrival in Airdrossa, the capital of Benan Ty, and her moves to bring the President and ViaVera into face-to-face negotiations. Quila is a beguiling mix of the idealist and the hard-headed pragmatist, committed to thrashing out a workable compromise between warring parties but equally loyal to Chi!me’s commitment to law and order. She knows full well that sometimes peace can be an elusive prospect (think Palestine and Israel) and when the power play kicks in with secret agendas and double-crossing intent of the deadly kind Quila is left wondering about the price tag on political naivety.
Sci-fi aficionados who like it straight up, in the style of Liu Cixin, may be disappointed by the lack of hard science in The Caduca but other readers will warm to a tale with a progressive vector and a soft spot for kusays – a Chi!me term that developed when they first took to the stars: a person, Chi!me, human or otherwise who lives up to ‘the minimum standards for their species’. Within the world of this novel, as in ours, they are an underpopulated group amongst the wielders of power but The Caduca shines a beacon of light and hope.
The word caduca (it rhymes with snooker) is an intriguing title for the book. It comes from the caduceus, an icon featuring two snakes intertwined around a winged staff, and is commonly used as a symbol of medicine. Wikipedia says this is a mistake and notes correct associations of the caduceous with trade, liars, negotiation and wisdom – four crucial threads in this intelligent tale woven by Elaine Graham-Leigh.