TEMPORARY AGENCY by Rachel Pollack
(Orbit 7th April 1994 202pp £15.99)

a review by L J Hurst

Six years after she won the Arthur C. Clarke Award for Unquenchable Fire, Rachel Pollack has written this follow-up, set in the same America of Bright Beings, where magic and ritual, religion and thaumaturgy are the norms. The important question: is what rules govern such a world?

Magic pervades every aspect of life and death, and men and women can communicate with the powers of light and of darkness. If they cannot communicate directly then the government has official channels. If the USA today has a division of powers then the America of Temporary Agency also has a division of powers, some of these powers are those of deities and sprites.

Somewhere along the time-line from which our world divided a lot of America has remained the same, and the basis of this novel is the attempts of Alison Birkett, a lawyer who specialises in demonic affairs, to obtain and enforce an injunction to prevent the forces of darkness from invading the worlds of teenage heroine Ellen Pierson and her cousin Paul Cabot. The government in the shape of the SDA (Spiritual Development Agency) is not too helpful in the maintenance of justice, because if has found, just as the CIA found General Noriega useful, that Malignant Beings may assist in the murkier business of diplomacy or assassination or both (as they tend to be one and the same thing). Paul has suffered a demon-inflicted death before the process servers can close in, but the legal case can be brought to an end: damages of $750,000; demon Lisa Black Dust 7 will be completely dissolved, and Paul "becomes a guardian spirit". "Of what?" "Elevators".

This comes about a third of the way through. Ellen goes on through the rites of teenage, then joins Alison Birkett again when they discover that the horror has not gone away and set out to fight it through an American presidential campaign, while Paul is a little statue in an elevator and in the passing years gets worn away by the erosion of daily life.

Rachel Pollack is playing the sort of game that the philosopher Wittgenstein identified: based on identifiable rules (and similar to, say, Randell Garrett's Lord Darcy stories). Rules require consistency, and as Garrett's are detective stories they allow no slippage. Lawyer Birkett is not Perry Mason, but a legal novel is just as rule bound, even if the reader has to discover the rules in this new world: it is a shock to discover that the civil service is just as incompetent and wrong-headed in a world where the mandarins confer with the seraphim as in the America of Reagan and Bush, but it is clearly within the rules. Magic is the norm, and so is the incivility of the civil service, because that is an almost universal truth.

What spoils the last longest and part of the book is the breaking of a major rule: the normality of Birkett breaking completely the professional relationship with her client, or allowing her client to break it. The novel turns into something else, abandoning the rules of the implicit world to allow Alison to find happiness with Ellen.

It may seem a bizarre ground to offer as a major adverse criticism, but I believe it is a significant flaw. Yes, require us to temporarily suspend our disbelief in the role of magic, and help to re-inforce that disbelief by showing how mundane and petty even a magical world must be; but do not then abandon that emphasis on the everyday rules to let the heroine fly off into happiness, because when that happens the reality collapses and disbelief disappears.

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This review first appeared in VECTOR The Critical Journal of the British Science Fiction Association

© L J Hurst 2001