What would you do if you were free?

“…get a job… I don’t care what it is. I’ll sweep streets, as long as I’m paid for it”.

Severna Park’s ‘Hand of Prophecy’ was one of the first sci-fi books I ever read. And, if I’m honest, one of the first books I’d read as a fully-fledged grown-up. Albeit a 19 year old one.

It’s a shame, now that I think about it, that I couldn’t tell you why I stopped reading as a teenager.
I think it was because the amount of books I had to read, often at metaphorical gunpoint, for the final years of highschool, the experience turning me off reading, particularly the English masters, for seemingly life. Shakespeare, the Bronte’s, Jane Austen, when you’re dealing with hormonal fallout, school-life and all its horrors, and a real case of ‘What do I do Nexts?’ books about windswept moors, upper-class debauchery and inheritance problems really seem disconnected to your current sit-rep.
Don’t get me wrong, I saw what an imposing figure Heathcliff was. His masculine virility surpassing that of Darcy, his emotional history, frailty, and eventual failure one of tragedy clearly surpassing Lear and his daughters in the death and forsaken love stakes.
But I shared more with Sylvia Plath and her Bell Jar – a novel a few of us obtained for the final summer, only for the opportunity to read it, it wasn’t (sadly) on the syllabus – than the windswept hills and dales of this green and pleasant land.

Science fiction novels I had never read. A fact that seemed ludicrous now, given my tastes currently point towards Gaimen, Kelley Armstrong and Joe Haldeman. But at the time I was wading through my freshman year at Aber, stuck in the American Revoultionary period, reading stuff that was similar in emotional pathos and intrigue to the A-level texts only 4000 miles to the left. Natty Bumpo is no Daniel Day-Lewis, that’s for sure.

So, I was messing about on Amazon one day and, like all things online that ending up linking to one another, found an offer for Park’s second novel, Hand of Prophecy.
Paperback. Small, less than 400 pages. Writing about slavery and freedom, dreams of love and the slaughter inside the arena, all with a subplot of cruel, temporary immortality; of finite life, unchanged by time.
At this point two of my favourite films were Blade Runner and Spartacus. And despite being a mature(ish) 19, unsurprisingly I recognised a kinship with many of the main characters in both movies, the rising numbers of the exploited underclass and the ideal that sticking true to yourself was the only way to be happy, even if it meant sure death at the hands of someone else.

This book seemed to be an amalgamation of both movies.
The main character, Frenna, is a house-slave to a negotiator on one of the planets alongside the rim of the main galaxy. Infected with an enzyme simply known as ‘Virus’ it allows Frenna immortality for 20 years, free from both aging and the risk of injury (within reason) before her body exhausts itself and dies, each cell in her body using what it needs to survive for 80 years in just 20. Basically its crystal meth only with a benefit.

Her lover is dying, close to failure, but she sees her lover’s owner inject her with an unknown second drug, cheating the final death and freeing herself.
Frenna refuses to believe such things are possible, but in the end agrees to accompany the other two women off-world, all three planning to take advantage of galactic instability and possible all-out war between several different factions.

Long story short, things go wrong, Frenna ends up in a gladiatorial arena on another planet, working as a med-tech to the fighters, trying to figure out how to survive, leave, and help the other pit-slaves in her care.
The characters she meets are what make the novel go. Hallie, her secondary love-interest is the Amazonian princeps of the place; tall, shorn blonde hair, no curves; it didn’t take much for me to empathise with her. Rasse, the mindless, mutated killing machine, bred for war and Leiban, tattooed and tragic a figure as there is, owned by the arena’s main trainer in a phantom relationship, she’s heartbroken at the end when he reveals his lack of feeling towards her, both of them choosing to stay behind as the buildings collapse, together in death if not in life.

What I liked was how Park created a quasi-language for her universe. Something I noticed recently with the new Mad Max film, proving both instantly alien and familiar, the sign of a good lexicon.
The book also uses its genre to shake itself free of some of the tropes of most mainstream fiction (at least for 1997, a long time ago for society when you think about it). The obvious point is the sexuality. Most characters venture into homosexual relationships, if only for the fact that they have the freedom to do so. Slaves, naturally, are forbidden to breed so segregation is commonplace, but it’s unclear if this outcome is by chance or by design, neither outcome seems unintentionally forced, and any time sex is used as a weapon it is written as plain as possible. Both here and in the Park’s first book ‘Speaking Dreams’ set in the same universe.

A single scene stood out for me more than any other. After arriving at the arena, Frenna goes for a walk on the day of the fighting, before the crowds arrive; ending up in the sand of the arena, looking up at the stadium bleachers, just a small soul within the coliseum’s walls. Looking at the box-seats, the expensive balcony seating hanging over the rim of stadium, dangling above the sand below, the best seats in the house.
But what I liked was that Frenna discovers, set back in the corner, visible only to those actually on the sand were the skulls of the fallen, white and bleached and set at regular intervals all the way around the ring. And on the lintels of the doors she finds hundreds and hundreds of names, all carved atop one another. ‘Tony’, ‘Cutter’, Breaker Boy’. All tributes and lasting memories for those who own nothing, and displayed for them alone because those above would never be in a position to see those names, and they do not care so what would be the point? It’s just for us Frenna, just for us.

Some people are faced with the realisation that family often has nothing to do with blood. Either by accident or design, their own or someone else’s, they duct-tape their lives together with whoever they find. Whoever feels like home.
People like that you will fight for.
The gang mentality, legitimised and permitted, albeit silently, in the eyes of modern society.
Teamwork, if you will.
But the kind that possesses an almost militaristic doctrine, to put the goal of everyone above your own, the success of the whole higher than that of the individual; and in return you get to carve your name on the lintel with everyone else.
Or sign your name on the theatre wall; which is what every theatre nurse did that final day the theatres closed. Names and dates, kisses, in memory of the past and love and blessings for the future. It’s just for us Devi, just for us.

Sometimes nursing feels like that. Standing in the arena, sun beating down, those higher up demanding better, demanding faster, demanding more. Sometimes it’s all I can do but to stand like a boy, hands on knees, sucking wind, sweat dripping from my upper lip, hair plastered beneath the paper hats, the look making everyone look like autons.
I often hate that look. And the fact that people attribute such a look to me. But it’s the tolerated bitterness that comes with the sweet taste of self-success. And it’s something I know I’m going to miss, for all my moaning and complaining, during the 12 months away from nursing that will commence this autumn.
I’ll miss the sand. But it’s never really gone from any nurse’s life. It’ll forever be between my toes. And I hope that the expectation of others continues to drive me when I leave.
And when I’m free.

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