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Cavalcade, Alison Sinclair, Millennium, 1998, 299 pp.
Cavalcade is well written, memorable, and filled with interesting and fleshed out characters. This book is Sinclair's third novel, after Legacies and Blueheart, and she has matured remarkably as a writer. Her first two books were sometimes tough going, stumbling in the use of realistic dialogue, but there's no such problem here, and in fact Sinclair uses sophisticated narrative perspectives in Cavalcade in a graceful and polished manner. She also seems to have found the scope that suits her writing: Legacies took place on two planets, Blueheart on one, and Cavalcade takes place with a relatively small group of people on an alien spaceship, and it's the third book that works best. Sinclair has an eye to the comprehensive, and the limited arena of Cavalcade keeps her insight and informativeness focused.
Cavalcade is a story of first contact, the second such story I have read recently that managed to add something new to an old, old subgenre (the first being Dorsey's A Paradigm of Earth -- more comparisons in a minute). Sinclair's book opens at the moment of departure, just as humans arrive in the alien spaceship. As it turns out, aliens orbiting Earth had only sent one message to humanity: "They were representatives of a mixed community of sentient species who had been exploring the galaxy for hundreds of thousands of years. If any human wants to join them, they would be welcome. They need only be standing within ten metres of the water line of a body of salt water, at night, in twenty-three days' time" (21). Cavalcade is the story of the people who decide to leave Earth, and how they interact with each other and react to their changing situation. No aliens can be seen aboard the ship, but the ship itself, or more specifically, its interior is made up of complex organic systems, and the people struggle to understand the systems at the pragmatic level of obtaining food and so forth. There are also political struggles between groups such as anarchists, feminists, and law-and-order types. Underlying all of this is always the desire to understand what the aliens intend and why.
The story is told from the viewpoints of four different people. Stan Morgan is a scientist, part of the official group sent on this voyage by NASA. Sophie Hemmingway is a neuropathologist, leaving Earth for her own reasons and accompanied by her cat. Stephen Cooper is a young criminal on the run. Hathaway Dene is a pregnant teenager, on the voyage partly to prove she can make it on her own, and while she is Stan Morgan's niece, he initially does not know that she is along. The chapters do not follow a strict rotation through the four viewpoints, but Sinclair keeps the chapters short enough (55 of them in this 300 page book) that the irregular order never sticks too long with any one character. The chapters for Stan, Sophie, and Stephen are presented in standard third person narrative, but Hathaway's chapters are in epistolary format, as Hathaway writes letters to her family back at home that may never be sent. The first chapter with a Hathaway letter, Chapter 5, was unbearably sentimental, but Hathaway's true nature becomes clear quickly in the following letters: she is smart, plucky, insightful into human nature (her own and others'), and extremely impatient with guff from anyone. She was soon my favorite character.
The other characters in Cavalcade were less vivid, and sometimes harder to keep distinct. Of the secondary characters, perhaps the most interesting is Marian, an older woman who was a resistance fighter during World War II. Marian becomes friends with both Stan and Hathaway, and helps them out at a key point in the plot.
I mentioned Dorsey's A Paradigm of Earth. That book used the idea of first contact to explore human nature in the form of one grieving and lovelorn woman. Sinclair's book is more an exploration of human nature in groups and under the stress of strange new circumstances. However, both books manage to avoid the stereotypes of the subgenre. Strangely enough, another parallel exists between the two books, albeit somewhat meaningless. Dorsey's main character is a woman named Morgan, and one of Sinclair's four main characters is a man named Morgan (peculiarly, Cavalcade always refers to Stan Morgan by his last name, even though the other three characters are referred to by their first). It's sheerest coincidence, of course.
Sinclair's Cavalcade is an interesting, satisfying novel, with strong characterization and smoothly flowing prose. Well worth reading.
Last modified: November 21, 2001
Copyright © 2001 by James Schellenberg (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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