In the world of Above/Below, the great cities of Loft float among the clouds, free of pollution, disease, hardship – mostly. On the ground below them is Dirt, where the people live among the polluted remains of society, their lives dominated with the foulness of the land and air around them. Dirt produces fuel for Loft, and in exchange Loft provides medical supplies – but the people of Loft tend to resent this reminder of what lies below them.
It becomes very difficult for both nations, then, when one of the cities of Loft falls out of the sky.
The book is a pair of novellas, which are presented back-to-back, so there is no front or back to the book, no correct place to start. I started with Above by Stephanie Campisi, which follows Devian – resident of Liera, a city of Loft – when he is assigned as handler to the diplomat sent by Dirt to discuss the crisis. The job is not an honor – he is one of the few people willing to breach taboo, and he has worked in the crews that wash the pollution from the underside of the city, a job that has already marked him as unclean.
Ben Peek’s Below gives the complementary scenario: Eli Kurran, a man from Dirt, and close to one of Dirt’s more prominent politicians, is given the job of protecting the diplomat from Loft when she comes down to the surface.
In this set up the stories are mirrors of one another, and in other details, as well – one man’s wife is dying, the other recently dead. Both wives worked in medicine. Both men have lost something of an old passion – Devian for the taboos of Dirt, Kurran his involvement in politics – since their wives were lost to them, but are reluctantly drawn back into things because of the city’s fall.
Beyond that, however, there is a large contrast in the two tales. In Above, Devian must deal with the refusal of much of Loft to even speak about Dirt, and the fact that his own interest in the event could even draw punishment. His job is not to protect the diplomat, Croll Dhormi, but to incriminate him in the sabotage that brought the city down. This story is a quiet one filled with conversations drawn tense by the inability of anyone to really speak straight about what is happening.
Below‘s Kurran, on the other hand, is respected, his wife was a famous doctor, and it is his closeness to politician Yolandra Jaeka that gets him the job protecting diplomat Alithia Serin. Dirt has no taboos about Loft – they are all very aware of the presence of the cities, and the fact that the people of Dirt live half as long as those above them. Between political maneuvering on the part of Dirt’s politicians and the apparent retaliation of the city of Liera for the fall of the other city, it is a more action-filled and emotional story than Above.
The contrast is almost certainly deliberate: the sterility of Loft, the denial of its people, represented in the distance and evasiveness in Devian’s interactions; Dirt being closer to the ground literally and metaphorically, the action and violence of the story stemming from the political position and the citizens’ familiarity with getting their hands dirty, so to speak.
Between the two, I have to say that while I appreciated the interactions of Devian Lell with Dhormi and with Whit, the official who singled him out for the work, in Above, I found I enjoyed reading Below more. There just seemed to be more meat to it – more characters and events, yes, but also Campisi’s novella just didn’t leave me feeling like I really knew what was going on with any of the characters besides Devian. The people in Below seemed more real.
Still, both novellas were enjoyable, and as an exercise in creating these paired stories that go together to form the full picture, it’s pretty successful.
Next week I’m off to Edinburgh for the weekend, but there won’t be a gap, because I’ve already finished the next book: Bad Monkeys by Matt Ruff.
Words WordPress doesn’t know: tense.