Stephanie Campisi and Ben Peek

ISBN: 9780989827415

Twelfth Planet Press (2011)

Reviewed by Guy Salvidge

Above/Below is the latest novella double from Perth-based Twelfth Planet Press, which has rapidly become one of Australia’s most important small presses dedicated to the publication of speculative fiction. In the tradition of the Ace Doubles and, later, the Tor Doubles, Twelfth Planet has helped to resurrect the oft-neglected art of novella writing. In an era of epic trilogies and ever increasing book lengths, the renaissance of shorter work is a welcome development indeed.

Above and Below, written by Stephanie Campisi and Ben Peek respectively, form halves of a greater whole. Just to be contrary, I read Below first, and I’m writing this part of my review before reading Above. In Below, we are introduced to the world of Dirt, a grotty, industrial zone that is home to those unfortunate souls tasked with mining the Shafts that fuel the cities of Loft in the sky above. This situation recalls that in H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine, in which the wretched Morlocks mine the earth’s bowels for the benefit of the delicate Eloi.

The action in Below mostly takes place in Dirt’s capital city, Naelur. Our protagonist, Eli Kurran, has recently lost his wife to the cancers that beleaguer every Dirt resident, and he is a broken man with only one thing left to live for: his daughter Lilia. Like every other resident of Dirt over the age of twelve, Eli’s body is covered with purifers that siphon out the toxins present in Dirt’s atmosphere, allowing him the opportunity to live (if he is lucky) to the grand old age of forty-eight or so.

The industrial zone of Dirt and the numerous floating cities of Loft co-exist in an uneasy state of peace until one of Loft’s cities crashes to Dirt below, with dire consequences for its residents. This precipitates a conflict that threatens to destroy Dirt, despite the best efforts of Loft woman Alithia Serin. Known as the ‘Dirt Woman’ to her countrypeople, Serin attempts to resolve the situation diplomatically. Tasked with helping her, Eli is drawn into the conflict despite his intentions to stay out of it.

Below is an easy, interesting read that explodes spectacularly into violence toward the end. Its author, Ben Peek, is an accomplished writer and he handles the material with assurance. And while Below concerns an imaginary world, like all good speculative fiction it holds up a mirror to our own planet. At Below‘s end, I am left comparing the situation with the Arab-Israeli conflict in the Middle East, with Dirt a rough approximation of the Palestinian territories to Loft’s Israel.

As a bonus, there is an interview with the now-deceased Del Kurran at the end of Below, which helps to shed further light onto the situation. I love this sort of extra material.

In Above, we get the other side of the coin. On the floating Loftian city of Liera, the aptly-named Devian Lell is forced to consider a proposal he would not normally consider. After witnessing the fall of the city of Adur, as is explained in more detail in Below, Devian is selected by Fennigan Whit for a task that no one else would accept: to be a minder for the diplomat from Dirt, the sickly Chroll Dhormi. Devian himself is an unlucky soul in that he lives in the seedier part of the city, and that his occupation is one subject to a powerful taboo: he is a cleaner of the city’s filthy underside. Worse, Devian’s wife Ninae has fallen sick from some pestilence that may be the result of his own occupation. This makes him a prime candidate to undertake Loft’s dirtiest job: coming face to face with a man from Dirt.

Above is a little different to Below in that the action is less pronounced and more internalised. Campisi writes in a rich, literary style that complements the rarefied world of Loft perfectly. And yet here too there is a seamy underside. Devian Lell is forced to explore this underside through a brief relationship with the aforementioned Dhormi, who is described as a snakelike creature with oil almost literally exuding from his pores. The power of taboo in Loft is so powerful that most of the upper world’s inhabitants do not know and will never ask how and why one of their cities came to crash to Dirt, and yet it is Devian’s job to get to the bottom of how and why this came to pass.

At the end of Above (and the end of the narrative for me) is another bonus piece, being an interview with a Loftian citizen even more unfortunate that Devian Lell. The piece, entitled “The Culture Show” is an interview with a murderer consigned to spending his days cleaning the city’s underside, a toxic and deadly occupation. Here we gain further insight into the hypocrisy of Loftian thinking, a dangerous combination of prudishness and a lack of empathy for those less fortunate. Here, also, are hints that Dirt and Loft may in fact be located on our own Earth after all, at some unspecified future time.

In summary, Above/Below is an admirable, entertaining and successful work that adds up to more than the sum of its parts. Its authors, Ben Peek and Stephanie Campisi, have done more than produce excellent novellas in their own right (although they have done that too) – they have produced an elegant composite novel which can, as I think I have shown, be read in any order. Furthermore, the physical production of the book is world class, from the outstanding cover designs by Amanda Rainey (depicting, I believe, Perth’s skyline) to the sharp internals. Writers Peek and Campisi, as well as Twelfth Planet Press and its editor Alisa Krasnostein, can be proud of their efforts here.