Sunday, August 8, 2010


Islands, by Marta Randall, is an old science fiction novel from 1976 that I first heard of over at Pages Turned and read in a couple of hours while sitting by a public pool mostly full of mothers and small children.

I'm starting to get to the age where mothers don't automatically smile at me when I smile at their small children. It's an age when teenagers' eyes glide right over me, an age when I'm told where I can sit at the pool so I can't watch what my younger teenager is doing. In short, I'm at the perfect age for reading Islands, about a woman who ages in a world where no one else does.

The setting of the novel is far in the future, after our world has been destroyed by global warming and other environmental meddling, with much of the seacoast and all of the Hawaiian islands (of the title) underwater since "The Great Shaping" a few millennia back. People can now be made immortal, except for Tia, on whom the process failed. Tia is now 67 years old in a world where no one else ages past their twenties, and everyone she meets is repelled by her existence and what it implies.

The immortals are terribly afraid of accidental death or dismemberment:
"The road and the land through which it passed were beautiful, but my passengers were so bound up in their fear that they did not sense the beauty, and I found myself once again exasperated by the typical, infuriating terror of the Immortals."

Tia's lover from her 20's, Paul, now an immortal and still with the same appearance he had in his 20's, has joined her--after decades of separation she imposed--on an expedition to dive for artifacts from the big island of Hawaii. They resume their sexual relationship, and Tia tries to reserve judgment about his motives for sleeping with a 67-year-old.

The reader learns how Tia has spent her life trying to come to terms with her mortality. The immortality process doesn't work on animals, so she feels that the immortals regard her as an animal. Oddly, though, their fear of anything physically risky and their lack of ambition and contented ignorance show them to be something less than human.

I loved this explanation about the dive:
"There are," Greville announced, "some plans to try underwater excavation of the west side of the island, what the natives called the, uh, um, Coffee Side."

The artifacts they bring up are mostly sold to collectors or kept as curiosities:
"Never mind what it was once for, or why it was created, or when it was used. Never mind what the lives of its original owners were like. It doesn't matter what it ultimately means, what it says about the culture that created and used it. It's a curiosity, a gimcrack, a decoration, a pretty, and no other meaning is necessary."

In the end, Tia learns some things she has been too afraid and too arrogant to find out before, and through the very mystical ending, she goes farther towards becoming wise, the traditional consolation of the old. One of the things she learns is what all old people who don't want to be shaking their canes and ordering kids off their lawn have to learn, that just because someone is young doesn't mean that he doesn't have anything to teach someone older.

Have you learned anything from someone younger lately?


Nicole (Linus's Blanket) said...

Wow. This sounds fabulous. What an interesting premise. Age is nothing that I usually factor into my experiences with people because everyone takes to it so differently. Some people never grow beyond their behavior and others do rapidly. I am always learning from people.

FreshHell said...

I am always learning something from my kids though I can't come up with a single example at the moment.

PAJ said...

I learned a bit about whaling in the 1800s during a book discussion with my 15-year-old daughter. She often patiently explains science- or math-related stuff to me, but I can't say that I actually "learn" those things.

Trapunto said...

Every youthful-minded person experiences something like Tia, I think. I have been surprised that one of the effects of getting older is to both feel the same as I did before, but find young people (not kids or teenagers; people in their twenties) looking more and more impenetrably preoccupied with things that don't matter to me. A force field of irrelevance. And my granny talks about what a continual shock it is to wake up 84, and to be treated (and find herself acting) like an old lady.

So, sounds like profound concept. Was Randall's writing good?

I learn from my cat. He's younger than me. Does that count?

Sad about the kids. I would tend (unfairly I suppose) to put it down to that shiny impenetrability of moms who grew up in 90's. Like they took being told not to talk to strangers too much to heart. Or spent too much time on the internet in their formative years. Have you ever wondered if your height is a factor? My sister is nearly six foot, and imposing with it, and she talks about how that affects strangers.

(Hope this isn't presumptuous.)

Karen said...

This sounds like quite a book. Thanks for bringing it to my attention, Jeanne.

Oh--and don't worry about the kids. I remember feeling/acting that way with my mom, and now I wish I could spend a weekend with her 6 or 12 times per year. We live ~400 miles apart.

Jeanne said...

Nicole, I think it's possible to age differently in NYC than in small town America.

FreshHell and PAJ, me too!

Trapunto, my dad has talked about how weird it is to feel the same but look older, too.

And of course it's not presumptuous to mention my height--I'm sure you're right. I forget about how imposing the height alone makes me seem to some people, especially kids. And I am, of course, a totally formidable woman on top of that.

I enjoyed Randall's writing--if I didn't, I wouldn't have finished the book in one afternoon.

Oh and there are lots of things I learn from my cats. One is that a person can never be too busy to cuddle.

Karen, I don't really worry about the kids. They're doing what they should, emerging as ever-more-independent beings.

Care said...

I want to read this book.