The more I think about it the more I like Tricia Sullivan’s genre-twisting SF novel Occupy Me. Why genre twisting? You don’t normally get both angels and dinosaurs in proper science fiction stories. It’s also a bit of a thriller. Occupy Me is primarily set in the here and now, but features higher dimensions, time-travel, death and a brief-case MacGuffin right out of the classic noir film Kiss Me Deadly (1955).
Initially, this book appears to be about an angel-like character called Pearl who is trying to discover why she is now living in our time and where she came from. She has wings and strength, but she is no superhero. She works for the Resistance, which in itself is a great idea. Imagine a world where everyone was a little bit kinder to everyone else regardless of who they were. Imagine how wonderful that world would be? The Resistance is on that mission. Improve the world by stealth. By tiny and incremental acts of kindness. When Pearl is introduced, she is employed on a plane, making the passengers feel a bit more at ease.
However, we’ve already been in the book for a few pages. There’s something called a waveform launcher. We’re introduced to a killer in the 2nd person, which is a little unsettling. There appears to be two people in the same body. Soon, though there’s angels falling from planes and a quetzlcoatlus (a type of Cretaceous pterosaur) bursting forth from the aforementioned briefcase. Before long, we’re involved in a mystery about the funding for the Resistance, a company called Pace Industries, aliens, mysteries of physics and higher dimensions, oil and a middle aged vet called Alison.
Occupy Me isn’t a long book and so Sullivan packs a lot into the plot. There’s plenty of action, some interesting speculation into dimensional physics and a trip back to the Cretaceous to encounter someone who is trying to outrun death. This section introduces one of two concepts that in reflection, I really like about this novel. There is something pleasing about the concept of using biology and oil to convey messages through time. The climax takes place on an oil rig. There is something in the molecular structure of the oil on the pterosaur’s feathers. Nice. The other is the inclusion of Alison. I didn’t buy her involvement in the plot at first. She enters via a kind of back door but soon becomes a key player. She goes from bored and lonely to action heroine a bit too easily. However, once you look past that, she’s a great character, and when was the last time a middle-aged female vet with grown up children was a main protagonist in a SF novel? Pearl is also a great character, imaginatively realised. Her wings exist in higher dimensions, and come out when she’s in trouble. She just wants to do the right thing, but also to understand herself.
The subject matter Sullivan tackles is a complex one and not easily followed. For this reason, the conclusion appeared to me, at least, to be a little muddled and less than satisfactory. The almost spy-thriller nature of the final showdown on the oil-rig followed by the character codas left me a tad disappointed. Sullivan’s writing is assured and the plot is neat enough. It is very hard to convey these cutting edge scientific concepts in simple prose and for the most part, Sullivan nails it: to the point that it feels properly surreal but not forced or pretentious. Then she introduces the Immanence – a far future civilisation, so removed from ours it is almost impossible to comprehend. By dropping in modern cultural references and having Alison as a character keeps the story grounded.
I’m not sure that the ideas in Occupy Me all make sense or have a solid scientific grounding. For the most part, that didn’t stop me from enjoying the story, and the development of Pearl as a character. Alison is great too once you get past her initial jump-in point. The conclusion left me a little cold and confused but didn’t dampen my overall enjoyment of the story. I admire the ambition and skill of Occupy Me if not the total execution.
AUTHOR: Tricia Sullivan
Reviewer: Ian J Simpson