Living Next Door to the God of Love
By Justina Robson
Bantam Spectra, 2006
The members of a fragile love triangle are forced into a confrontation with a deadly, capricious and all-but-omnipotent entity in Justina Robson's Living Next Door to the God of Love, a far-future SF novel about individuality, myths, and the chameleonic nature of human affection.
Jalaeka is a runaway fragment of the Unity, an invisible and formless mass mind that inhabits the eleven-dimensional space Robson proposed in her earlier novel, Natural History. Enigmatic and drunk on its own power, the Unity has, over the course of its millennia-long existence, "absorbed" billions of sentient beings.
Each victim's consciousness is incorporated into the Unity through a process called translation, a transition that is allegedly just like going to Heaven. Joining with the Unity does mean transcending mortality and its pitfalls, be they pain, suffering, loneliness or even death. More dubious is its claim that people who are translated—whether by choice, accident, or the Unity's caprice—retain their individuality. In other words, a person's unique sense of self is supposed to survive the absorption process.
All of this sounds quite appealing on paper, but Jalaeka knows these promises for what they are—the spin control of a psychic parasite. A long-lived and charismatic beauty, he has been running from the Unity ever since it first spawned him. Whether he's healing the psychic wounds of some damaged person he's just met, deciding to save a drowning man, or even just falling in love with a mortal girl, Jalaeka by his very nature cannot remain hidden for long. Powerful and conspicuous, he can never quite stay off its radar, instead giving in to generous impulses that reveal him to the pursuing entity.
The Unity's ambassador to humanity is Theo, and as Living Next Door to the God of Love opens, he has just picked up Jalaeka's trail in Metropolis, a so-called "Sidebar universe." Inhabited by humans, Metropolis was generated by an artificially intelligent Engine that set up its Sidebar's physical laws to allow people to play at being superheroes. As multiple Daredevils and Batmans battle imaginary drug lords, Jalaeka is involved in a real fight for his life, and this time he barely gets away. Metropolis is left to pay a heavy price for his escape, though, as the Unity absorbs its millions of citizens (who despite their illusory superpowers are impotent to stop the carnage) without a second thought.
From there, Jalaeka flees to Sankhara, a world of magical elves and sea snakes, where he meets Francine, a fourteen-year-old genius who is also on the run. The two end up—not quite by chance—working at the same bordello. The result is love at first sight, an ill-timed romantic relationship that may be doomed from the get-go. With the Unity still desperately searching for its lost fragment, Francine is destined to be caught in the middle of their colossal struggle of wills. . . . And while Jalaeka has every intention of protecting her, Theo is utterly ruthless, and more than willing to use the lovestruck girl as a pawn in his quest to reabsorb the Unity's prodigal son.
The novel is an exotic and sensual symphony that riffs up and down on the subject of love while offering a dazzling display of highly imaginative settings and an ensemble of ultra-cool characters. Sankhara is a Sidebar of Earth, like Metropolis, created by a world Engine, maintained by artificial intelligence and largely populated by faux-people called Stuffies who essentially serve as extras. Stuffies pad out the populations of the made-to-order Sidebar societies, while working at jobs too menial for real humans to take on. The story plays out in a series of cozily nested worldlets: Jalaeka's home lies within a replica of Catherine the Great's Winter Palace, which is in turn hidden in one of Sankhara's seedier neighborhoods.
Blended into this complex setting are dozens of miniaturized love stories, subplots that span a wide range of emotions and situations. The text is a virtual shopping mall of affections: a showcase featuring friendship, infatuation, adoration, casual sex, narcissism, and a good deal more. Readers experience the rage-tinged love that drives Francine to flee her mother's home, the many disastrous romances of Jalaeka's past, and a cyborg cop's enduring grief for her dead partner. The story even contains a so-called cult of love that rejects the idea of romance, instead embracing a generic "non-critical acceptance" of all beings. These tangled storylines serve as a backdrop for the romantic relationship between Jalaeka and Francine, as well as their deepening friendship with a recently jilted scientist named Greg.
No book so deeply concerned with the topic of love can be complete without exploring its counterpart, of course, and Theo makes an outstanding representative of passion's darker face. Love and hate are not evenly matched in this novel: Theo has more power and plays exceedingly dirty. While all of Robson's characters are intriguing, her villains in this novel are showstoppers. Callous and exceedingly brutal, she imbues them with an uncanny ability to take actions that will shock even the most jaded sensibilities.
In Living Next Door to the God of Love, Robson has created an immensely busy novel, so it is hardly surprising that at times the intricacies of her 11-d universe become so dense they elude easy comprehension. Despite its SF sensibilities, Robson's Sidebar worlds operate with a good deal more magic than logic, and it takes effort and attention to track the action—and its underlying reasoning—as it unfolds. But as the danger to Francine and Greg escalates, eventually expanding to threaten all of Sankhara, the suspense has a hard-to-resist allure. Readers may find themselves divided on whether their need to see Jalaeka's final confrontation with the Unity can outweigh the confusion of the narrative.
It helps that Robson's prose is sharp-edged and poetic, making every paragraph a pleasure to read. If Living Next Door To The God of Love suffers at times from the weaknesses common to this genre of novel—books whose merely mortal protagonists are sucked into cosmic events beyond their comprehension—it mostly succeeds in glossing over its flaws, instead seducing the mind with an unending array of cool and flashy distractions, not to mention the unusual romance at its heart.