Above/Below is made up of two novellas – Above by Stephanie Campisi and Below by Ben Peek. The stories are based in the same world – a world where the inhabitants have split themselves into two main groups. The inhabitants of Loft have built cities that take to the skies and float amongst the clouds, while the inhabitants of Dirt remain on the surface of the planet. It is a fairly blatant have/have not scenario – the citizens of the various city-states of Loft are relatively wealthy and healthy, using lopsided trade agreements to get what little they need from Dirt. By comparison, the citizens of Dirt live in poverty and sickness, with everyone suffering from what seems like radiation and other pollution related sickness.
The catalysing event of both stories is the literal fall of one of the smaller flying city-states (Adur). Above is set in another of the flying city-states Liera, and is told from the point of view of Devian Lell (a “cleaner” who works outside the city cleaning it of pollutants – a very low status job with a high possibility of sickness – and former dissident who has a now waning passion for finding out more about Dirt). He is reluctantly assigned to Dhormi, an ambassador from Dirt come to discuss the ramifications of the fall of the city of Adur.
Very like the Upper Decks in Richard Harland’s Worldshaker young adult novel, the world of Loft was painted in a very unsympathetic manner. The vast bulk of the citizenry exploit Dirt for raw resources without much thought to the consequences. Ms Campisi chooses to tell the story from a very low status individual who already has significant doubts about the society he lives in. As such, while some of the descriptive imagery is beautifully rendered, you don’t really get to see how the bulk of Loftian society lives.
Devian is buffeted by events, as a result I found the Above storyline to be a little passive. The prose was excellent, the imagery vivid, the protagonist well developed and described – I just found myself not really caring as much as I wanted to about the outcome of the plot.
Below is set in Dirt and is told from the perspective of Eli Kurran, a security officer in Dirt assigned to the diplomat who visits Dirt in the aftermath of Adur crashing to the surface. Kurran has recently lost his wife to cancer and is reluctantly recalled to duty for this mission.
Inhabitants of Dirt are exposed to radiation and other pollutants from the womb, and as a result have a very limited lifespan. To extend it, they have “purifiers” surgically embedded around their twelfth birthday. These have the appearance of metal spikes sticking out of the body, which expel toxins from the bloodstream and dramatically life expectancy (from an average of 22 to 48 – still not great!). This one feature stuck with me and created a strong visual image of the citizens of Dirt. Due to this and the general setting, Below had a much more dystopian feel than Above.
I felt a much stronger connection with Kurran than with Devian. Kurran, while still buffeted by events, seemed to take some measure of control over them. The story seemed a little more strongly plot driven than Above, perhaps with slightly less background and character development. The action scenes were well written, and while both novellas did not resolve all of the overarching plot elements I did get more of a sense of closure from Below.
I read the eBook version of the book. In the original print version, the books are printed using the “tete-beche” format (like some of the old Ace Double books released in the US). Theoretically it doesn’t matter which order you read the novellas in. Of course, having picked one order you can never really go back and try the other way around in the same way, but I think that reading Above then Below is probably the best. The understanding of the world and the relationship between Loft and Dirt you gain in Above makes the Below story more impacting. I’m not sure that it would make as much difference the other way around.
So, in summary both excellent novellas. If you like character development better than I suspect you’ll prefer Above. If plot is more your thing, then I suspect you’ll drift towards Below. But either way, the combination makes for a very satisfying read.
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This work by Mark Webb is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Australia License.