Book Review: Deep Wheel Orcadia, by Harry Josephine Giles

Posted: January 14, 2023 in Chat
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Deep Wheel Orcadia, by Harry Josephine Giles. Published by Picador, 2021.
Winner ofThe Arthur C Clarke Award 2022.

Deep Wheel Orcadia is a sci-fi novel in narrative verse, written in Orkney speech.
Each verse piece is accompanied by standard translation.

The verse form, narrative verse not lyric, is accomplished throughout. The metre has a base of iambic pentameter that allows variations. The rhythmic structure of this carries us forward through the telling.

The setting works on three levels, firstly it is set on the outer rim of a wheel space station orbiting around a gas giant star. This parallels the position of earth on an outer arm of our own galaxy, and of Orkney’s outlying position off the UK.
The scene is of a run-down old trading/fishing port, whose future is at risk. Spot the similarities? So, dystopian, then.

The Orkney speech is bolstered by use of Orkney dictionaries, and so the time element becomes an issue. Phrases and compound images that were the product of their time can be incorporated into the future setting of the book; they are from traditional occupations, fishing, sailing, that are used in the projected future occupations of the inhabitants of this small run-down post on the outer rim of the wheel.
Light is harvested from the seas of space; wrecks of old space ships are captured as salvage; small family businesses of these fisher people struggle for existence.

The translation is is standard prose, and carries multiple readings of Orkney phrases. Some reviewers find this quite difficult to read.
We encounter translation issues here: there are no straight word-to-word equivalences, but contextual shadings. At the same time the book seems to want to give speech’s ability to communicate the ‘gestalt’ of multi-layered experience.
By sounding the words, and a familiarity with Scots writing, the writing flows easier.

The narrative begins with

Astrid docks

The chime o the tannoy is whit taks her back,
fer hid isno chaenged, nae more as the wirds
sommonan her tae the airlock: her wirds,
at sheu inso heard for eyght geud year.

Sheu waatched the Deep Wheel approch, grey-green,
hids Central Staetion tirlan yet
anent the yallo yotun, peedie
bolas teddert aroon hids ring

pierheids trang wi yoles, wi glims,
an fund the gloup atween outbye an in
clossan slaa – but only noo,
wi this soond, deus sheu ken whar sheu is

The chime of the tannoy is what takes her back, because is has not changed, neither have the words summoning her to the airlock: her words, which she hasn’t heard for eight good long years.
She watched the Deep Wheel approach, grey-green, its Central Station still urntwistwhirlspinning againstaboutbefore the yellow gas giant, little bolas ropemoormarried around its ring.
overheads fullactiveintimate wit boats, with gleampointslights, and found the chasm cleft between outside and inside closing lax slowly – but only now, with this sound, does she know where she is.

There’s a definite sense of enjoying and applauding the sound and the resources of the language.

Communities that struggle to survive adopt curt and knotty speech habits, loathe to be lavish with words as they with their little wealth, and also colouring speech with rebarbative undertones.

The time is the distant future, when space travel is the norm, and many parts of the galaxy have been inhabited.
Time is an important element in the story.
Anomalies occur, people begin to ‘see things’, whether visions of Viking warriors (an intrinsic part of Orkney’s past and inheritance), and/or possibly images from the future.
This is the Scottish ‘second sight’ phenomenon’s ambiguous presence once again. Ambiguous because it can damn the see-er, as here, or further confuse on-going events.

There are a wide range of characters – too many for some poor reviewers.

The two main characters are Astrid, a local woman returning home after studying away, and Darling. Darling, we discover, with the pale skin tone of someone from Mars’ low sunlight habitat, proves an ambiguous persona, on the run from her powerful family, and looking to lie low somewhere out of the way. She has already changed form and appearance. She is amorphous, and it is difficult to pin down her personality. She is very much a person in transition.

One of the main end events is an annual dance, harvest home, a ceilidh, in effect form-dancing. It is also a naming ceremony. The end dance forms a spiral nebula – I may be wrong.
The book ends with a change of dynamics, but not a resolution of issues and tensions. In many cases possible repercussions are intimated.
I wonder whether a possible follow-up is left deliberately open.


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