I wrestled with this review for Chandler Klang Smith’s 2018 novel The Sky is Yours from the first paragraph. I wanted to refer to it as a “zeitgeist novel.” After I wrote that, I glanced at Wikipedia and decided that, as Inigo Montoya says to the Sicilian in The Princess Bride, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” So, I’ve decided that The Sky is Yours is not a zeitgeist novel. It’s more self-conscious than that. It is a novel of the zeitgeist, using a future-dystopia to comment on the values, concerns and fears of modern living.
The Sky is Yours is about the future the way William Gibson’s SPRAWL trilogy, which captured the 1980s is a way no other books did, was about the future. The Sky is Yours is intentionally literary. The opening line of the book, “This is a story of what it is to be young in a very old world,” tells you what you need to know: that this story intends to be a story.
In a future city, Empire Island, that looks a lot like New York, twin dragons fly overhead, setting various buildings on fire in a way that seems, at first, to be random. The dragons emerged from the ocean fifty years earlier. No one has been able to kill them or control them. They are part of daily life now. The Sky is Yours follows not the dragons but three young people living their lives in or near the city. Duncan Humphrey Ripple V is eighteen, heir to a fortune, and the former star of the reality streaming-content product called Late Capitalism’s Royalty. Ripple is coddled, entitled and not very smart. While he is out flying around in his personal aircraft, a blow from a dragon’s tail crashes him on an artificial island made of trash, where he meets the feral girl Abby. It’s lust at first sight, and when Ripple is rescued he brings Abby with him. This is awkward, since his arranged-marriage bride Baroness Swan Lenore Dahlberg is due to arrive with her mother in a few days. These three young people, Swanny, Ripple and Abby, form the core of a book centered largely in Empire Island.
I not only wrestled with this review, I wrestled with this book too. I didn’t know exactly what kind of story this was at first, and the story would not let me in, until I realized that this is not a literal futuristic dystopia. This is a literary exercise about life in the US now.
It’s a story about privilege, social and economic inequity, spelled out in the simplest way. People who don’t have money are imperiled by random dragon attacks. They struggle to find food or maintain power to their houses. The safest way to travel is on boats through the sewers. The plutocrats, like the Ripple clan, live in houses high enough that the dragons don’t attack. They want for nothing. They are bored and boring. Ripple has a primate-canine hybrid pet, and he thinks of Abby as a pet too. Swanny, who was raised outside the city, is not as wealthy as Ripple, but she is far smarter than Ripple, which is part of the reason she was chosen as his bride.
Swanny is a Baroness, but there is no peerage or aristocracy in this world. Her title isn’t explained, just as it’s never explained why some governmental military agency didn’t try to contain the dragons. The sense of The Sky is Yours is that the people of Empire Island are on their own. This is a novel of the zeitgeist. People feel that they are on their own in the face of unemployment, loss of health care and natural catastrophes. Empire Island isn’t meant to be a real place; it’s a beautifully defined metaphor.
Similarly, the people of Empire Island built a medium security prison, Torch Town, right in the middle of the city. Most municipalities don’t build prisons in the middle of downtown. Torch Town needs to be there, though, because Torch Town and its mobster crime lord are central to the story once it gets going.
Smith’s prose is an amazing performance. It’s high-intensity, original, funny. A few times I felt like I was downing my second signature cocktail at a high-end lounge; not quite drunk on the words, but definitely tipsy. She has a great sense of dark humor that she uses to good effect through out the story. I love the sly digs, like “the Lipgloss Building,” and the names of all the “classic” books, like The Governor of Illinois and They Call it Criminal. I laughed when I discovered that Ripple’s father communicates with him mostly through email memos. I especially like this moment of realization that Ripple shares as he and Abby flee a home invasion.
It’s at this moment, for the first time, that Ripple truly realizes the nature of the story that he’s in. Up until this moment, he believed himself to be the hero, if not in terms of actual bravery, at least in terms of situational positioning. The story was about him, always. Now, though, Ripple realizes what an illusion that all was, a function of clever editing in service of mindless entertainment.
I like stories that play with textual styles of storytelling and Smith uses both a screenplay format and a game-script format in places, reminding us that Ripple, at least, thinks of life as a piece of streaming content… and also that the entire book is a performance.
Because The Sky is Yours uses stock characters or types to unfold its story, and because the story’s focus is on this ashy, trashy, violent and vibrant city, the main characters are only slightly more than types. The handful of primary characters include the Smart Fat Girl, the Wild Child, the Magical Girl, the Mobster and even a bitter-but-perceptive wheelchair guy. Swanny is probably the best developed character in the book, or at least the most complex. Once again, clever writing, witty banter and perfect comic timing make these stock characters palatable.
In a few places, Smith overdoes the jokes. While the mention of Ripple’s disease, “affluenza,” is funny, it gets overused later in the story. And I don’t know if it’s a clever Easter egg or hubris, or perhaps both, that allows a writer to name a musical instrument in the story after herself, but on first encounter I found it jarring. (It could be a reference to this guy, but that’s a bit of a stretch.)
In a couple of cases, the storylines for the characters do diverge somewhat from what’s expected. While I wasn’t completely convinced by it, I liked that Swanny’s story arc veered away from the predictable at the very end. This can’t be said for Abby, whose cute, calloused feet never veer by one footstep from the path the reader anticipates from early in the story. Ripple starts off as a spoiled, stupid, clueless boy. By the end he is a clued-in, stupid man, and — and I say this with absolutely no sarcasm — that is genuine character growth. And I wasn’t entirely reading The Sky is Yours for its characters, anyway. I was reading it for ape-hounds, super-smart rats, the Lipgloss Building, The Fire Museum and a ferry system that uses the sewers.
The dragons are both resolved and explained for approximate values of both those terms, given the world-building choices made in this book.
Smith’s book is a little too slow in the first half, but I loved it for her prose, the strangeness of the imagery and her poisoned-blade humor. This is not a conventional dystopian story. It’s not exactly a comedy of manners, although the first half is. If you like strange, vivid prose and lots of acid-etched humor, you’ll enjoy this. If you have a sense that your world is on fire and you have to row through a sewer just to live your life, if you think that only criminals profit, the rich are vapid and uncaring, there is no one on your side, and everything you see on media sources is a well-edited sham, you will completely relate to The Sky is Yours. I am not a person who sees life that way, but I enjoy reading a book now and then that makes me wrestle with its concepts, and work to accept the book on its own terms. The Sky is Yours did that, and it was refreshing.
I had a less positive reaction to The Sky is Yours than Marion, though there were certainly aspects I liked. As Marion says, I too “wrestled” with it, but I never really felt like I came out of the clench. Every time I’d be wowed — almost always by the prose — that moment would be followed up by the introduction of yet another trope, or something that felt a little gimmicky, or, most often, by having to listen to yet another of these wholly unlikable characters.
Now, I can live with unlikable characters, but it’s a tough line to tiptoe and Smith just didn’t succeed often enough for me. The characters, again as Marion points out, are all types, with little depth, which means what you’re left with is a collection of horrible traits. Honestly, it was difficult for me to get past that “lust at first sight” moment, since it’s tough to see how Abby could give any truly meaningful consent. I also had a hard time getting past her over-the-top enthusiasm for the act, given that it’s her first time, it’s literally done on a pile of garbage, and how hard it is to imagine Ripple as much of a “giver.” Ripple’s “growth” didn’t seem all that great to me, nor did it feel earned. Swanny was only a slight improvement on Ripple with regard to characterization. The only one that felt like a real person with any depth was one Torchtown “boss,” but I didn’t think his potential was fully mined.
The worldbuilding felt like a flimsy collection of off-the-shelf tropes that didn’t form anything particularly original. The thinness might have been less annoying had I felt the whole thing was as strictly a metaphor as Marion took it, but that aspect was muddied for me by the references to the outside world, which just made me wonder why this place was just left to itself when it didn’t seem the rest of the world worked that way. The plot, meanwhile, wasn’t particularly compelling or even interesting, and its episodic nature felt like it was more a vehicle for clever language play. Between plot and worldbuilding, there were so many holes or foggy aspects that it felt like I was required not to think too much about how/why things worked as they did. The whole thing had a “written-off-the-cuff” feel to it, a bunch of scenes loosely strung together as the ideas came to the author.
I do agree with Marion that the prose was often excellent, as was the metafictional aspect of the story. Smith shows a marked originality on a sentence level that wasn’t, in my mind, evident in the book’s other aspects, and I noted more than a few of those lines for their startling use of language and image. I didn’t find it quite as funny as Marion did, though it had its moments. While I did like some of the non-traditional techniques, after a while it began to feel like Smith was just throwing anything and everything into the mix, so that by the end it felt forced, gimmicky, and a bit like the author didn’t trust the work to stand on its own.
I think The Sky is Yours could have worked as a novella pretty easily. Not having to spend so much time with awful characters, a stripping away of some of the overly-familiar elements and references to the outer world, less plodding through an episodic plot that isn’t really all that important, a reduction in the number of gimmicks, more selective satirical elements —all of that would have left the focus on the prose style, which was clearly the novel’s strength.