The Meat Tree

Gwyneth Lewis is not the sort of writer who normally features in these pages. She’s primarily a poet, and her achievements include being made the inaugural National Poet of Wales in 2005, and winning the Bardic Crown at the 2012 National Eisteddfod. (The Crown is awarded for free verse, as opposed to the better known Chair which is for a long poem in strict metre.) If you have ever been to Cardiff, the words inscribed on the roof of the Millennium Centre were written by her. That’s serious mainstream literary credibility.

And yet, Lewis has written science fiction. The Welsh publishing house, Seren, commissioned a series of re-imaginings of The Mabinogion, and 2010 saw the publication of The Meat Tree, a science fiction novella by Lewis based on the Fourth Branch. Lewis notes in her Afterword that she has long been fond of science fiction, and made a point of studying it before writing the book. This is no arrogant literary author slumming it in a genre they know nothing about, this is the real thing.

I’m not going to recap the plot of the Fourth Branch (as much as anything in The Mabinogion can be said to have a plot). Suffice it to say that it is the section that contains the stories of the rape of Goewin, and the tale of Blodeuwedd, the woman made of flowers. It is very weird.

The Meat Tree, in contrast, at least starts in a sensible and predictable manner. The story has just two characters. Campion is an Inspector of Wrecks. It is his job to visit newly discovered derelict spaceships and find out what happened to them. This is to be his last mission. Management has decided that the job is better done by robots. Campion thinks this is daft, because robots don’t understand humans and will never get to the bottom of a wreck mystery. But he’s also old, possibly too old, and terrified of the boredom that retirement will bring.

Nona is new to the job. As physical inspections are to be discontinued, she doesn’t understand why she’s been sent on this crazy mission with an old fool who keeps muttering about the good old days and treats her like an idiot. Having never been on such a mission before, she is indeed an idiot much of the time. The story revolves around how these two very different people come to understand each other better, and appreciate each other’s strengths.

The wreck is a very old Earth vessel. So old that there is actually a cassette tape player on board. (It does not belong to Peter Quill.) The logs say that it had a crew of three: two men and one woman, but there is no sign of any bodies.

What Campion and Nona do find is a very sophisticated VR system. Clearly the crew needed something to while away the time during a long voyage. Perhaps the game that they were playing will throw some light on the mystery of what became of them.

Thus our two heroes find themselves partaking in a VR re-telling of the Fourth Branch. They end up taking the parts of various characters including Gwydion, Math, Goewin, Arianrhod, and Bloduewedd. It is not a pleasant experience for either of them.

Another comment in the Afterword tells how Lewis was inspired for part of the plot by meeting Joan Roughgarden while working at Stanford. Roughgarden is the trans Professor Emeritus of Biology whose book, Evolution’s Rainbow, has been invaluable to my writing on gender in the natural world.

I can’t tell you too much more, because the book is only a novella and I don’t want to give too much away. Suffice it to say that the ending is sufficiently strange to do justice to the source material. I wish I had known about this book back in 2011, though Ted Chaing won the novella Hugo that year with The Lifecycle of Software Objects, and I don’t think Lewis would have begrudged him his victory.

book cover
Title: The Meat Tree
By: Gwyneth Lewis
Publisher: Seren
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura