Review: Cloud Permutations

By Harry Markov

Cloud_PermutationsTidhar, Lavie. Cloud Permutations. PS Publishing [January 2010]. 130 pp. $18.60 USD; £12.00. ISBN: 978-1-84863-043-7.

The world of Heven was populated, centuries ago, by Melanesian settlers from distant Earth. It is a peaceful, quiet world – yet it harbours ancient secrets.

Kal just wants to fly. But flying is the one thing forbidden on Heven – a world dominated by the mysterious, ever present clouds in the skies. What do they hide? For Kal, finding the answer might mean his death – but how far will you go to realise your dreams?

Set against the breathtaking vista of a world filled with mystery and magic, Cloud Permutations is a planetary romance with a unique South Pacific flavour, filled with mythic monsters, ancient alien artefacts, floating islands and a quest to find a legendary tower…whatever the cost.

Cloud Permutations can be characterized as a hybrid on several levels. The storytelling, for one, is a hybrid. I was treated to first-hand experience from Kal’s POV, but the narrative also slipped from the now, sidetracked to give adjacent trivia and reminded me how important the story is for Heven’s culture. From what minimal knowledge I have about the people living in Melanesia, art and storytelling are entwined with one shaping the other. This adds a new dimension to the story as well as being entertaining. I saw some similarities between this narrative and the one Lovecraft uses to structure “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward”, with the latter sewing together snippets and extracts from journals, letters, newspapers, and other sources. It’s a random comparison given that both works are as far away from each other as possible, genre-wise, but Tidhar achieves the same effect Lovecraft had with this trick. The detachment serves to breathe life into the world and add realism.

This hybrid storytelling works for this story, which seems ensconced between two genres. Cloud Permutations is more science fiction than it is fantasy. The setting consists of a secondary world, which has been colonized centuries ago and fashioned to meet human needs. The inhabitants know their history. Man is at peace with the environment, the atmosphere reminding the reader of tribal life, but technology is also a constant.

However, Tidhar also introduces elements of the fantastic: the native flora and wildlife are exotic and tickle the imagination, because they flirt with the familiarity of our own world, but then depart so smoothly and become unknown. The majestic Hilda Lini, with which the first settlers have come into contact, has acquired mythological glory. Clouds have been rumoured to possess sentience and even forbid flying with a death sentence. This is what happens to Kal’s childhood friend Vira, who dares to commit a tabu and construct a kite with Kal in order to fly.

Heven is a land of computers and a land of prophecies. Its seas host giant squids with an IQ high enough to do biddings after the necessary sacrifices have been done and shuttles with complex A.I that are fully operational after eons. An engineered floating island navigates the oceans and a monolithic tree reaches for the clouds, while its roots sink deep into the depths of water. That last element reminded me of Kaaron Warren’s Walking the Tree. Part of the pleasure was discovering what Tidhar had written next in this world, which reminded me of Le Guin’s exquisite Hainish Cycle, where technology and mystical alien worlds have been married beautifully.

Amidst this natural opulence, we have a boy with a desire to fly and a prophecy, which promises fulfillment. His story is a classic fantasy scenario. From the small island of Epi, he moves to the floating island Tanna, where he befriends the enigmatic albino Bani, who seems to always know more than everybody else. It is exactly Bani’s curiosity and less-than-moral actions that sweep Kal into a short trip on a boat to a deserted island, which grows into a run for their lives across Heven’s oceans. The typical tropes are here: a traveling party, a clandestine society called the Guardians bent on stopping the boys from reaching their goals, a warrior princess, and even romance.

Taken out of the context of the world, Cloud Permutations seems bland and all too familiar, but it’s saved by the passion and manner in which Tidhar layers his world. Heven is vibrant since it’s drawn from Tidhar’s personal experiences and possesses a pulling force, which I couldn’t ignore.

What I loved was how the constant clouds have tinted the worldview of the inhabitants, how the new culture is tied into them, and how their constant shapeshifting in the skies have shaped their expressions. Another ever-present element is the language. The people on Heven speak a dialect of English, which at times is identifiable, but sometimes foreign enough to include a translation. Language is sentient. It’s influenced by what happens around its speakers and makes the needed changes to fit. Language also varies from one geographic area to another and what grander and vaster area is there from a whole new planet? It gave me joy to read such a well-thought-out world.

But even with all the rich otherworldly exotica and charm, Tidhar poses more questions than he gives answers to, which, if even scratched at, would have made Cloud Permutations outstanding. How did Bani become aware of his own prophecy and that of Kal, despite the secrecy surrounding both? What happened to Bani after he fulfilled his prophecy? What are the guardians’ motivations to prevent the boys from completing their mission? Why do the clouds prohibit flying?

Perhaps I, as the reader, was not meant to learn those answers. Maybe it’s irrelevant why ancient secret societies or sentient clouds do what they do, because life is never fully exposed and nobody is treated to a full vista with all the angles and details. Also, me asking more about Kal and Bani means the text has accomplished its goal to make me crave more. At this point, I can’t entirely identify the goals Tidhar has set for his novella, but I am utterly charmed and recommend it. It’s a guaranteed fun read.

You can find Cloud Permutation at the PSPublishing website.