Although “Legolas Does The Dishes” (in Postscripts 15) is the least sfnal thing I’ve read by Justina Robson, it’s not a radical departure from the themes she’s been working with at novel length – identity, consciousness, relationships. In fact, it’s arguably her most careful expression of those themes to date, drawing out the inherent science-fictionality of the first two, and laying bare the tensions they inflict on the third. According to the header notes, the story was written between the completion of Living Next-Door to the God of Love (a book I admire greatly) and the start of Quantum Gravity (a series I wish I could admire more), and it does function as a kind of pivot between them. Both of the longer works have at their core relationships between (more or less) human women and otherworldly men, and what you get in “Legolas Does The Dishes” is a similar relationship, but reframed in terms of uncertainty.
Elizabeth is a patient in an unnamed North American asylum. She claims to have a curse of sight, to be able to see “other planes”, and to be uniquely aware that “the world is the product of the mind”. As the story begins, she describes her introduction to a new member of staff – a dishwasher – whom she becomes increasingly certain is, in fact, Legolas. She knows full well that The Lord of the Rings is fiction, but –
… the meme of Legolasness and all it implies must have been spreading around the general population like a plague and so, even though I cannot really be looking at an Elf of Middle Earth, but surely am only looking at someone through a voluntary delusion I am prepared to entertain as True, nonetheless, here he is. Legolas is washing our dishes. Because reality is of the mind. And my mind says this is the real thing. And so he is. Unless he thinks he isn’t. And then of course, he won’t be.
Elizabeth is like this: open, a little breathless — you always feel she could stand to take a deep breath — and well aware that we might consider her crazy. (And aware of the ways in which popular culture can be used to help us understand her craziness. When introduced to Legolas, she describes herself as moved towards him by an “unstoppable force”, until the “immovable object” of a kitchen counter stops her.) She was committed for poisoning her mother for “poisoning me with ideas” or, more specifically, with a story: “She brought me up believing that I was living in a fairytale.” For Elizabeth, ideative poisoning is no less severe a crime than the more traditional kind, and her actions were a kind of self-defence, but we’re left wondering. The intensity of her fascination with Legolas (he never acquires another name), and the strength of her confidence that he really is the reincarnation of a fictional character, are a disconcerting couple of degrees beyond normal. And when he doesn’t deny her initial questions (“What are you doing here? Why aren’t you in Valinor?” … He muttered hesitantly, “I forgot about that, I guess”) we may see it as a man humouring a woman he thinks is less than entirely sane, but she takes it as a license to believe the story in her head: as license, if her understanding of the nature of reality is accurate, to make the story true.
The pair are introduced by one Nurse Driver, who is aware of Elizabeth’s claims about what she can perceive, and seems to take a perverse pleasure from placing her with unsuspecting folks and seeing what happens. Nurse and patient are locked in an odd duel of wills and wits, in which neither party is ever quite sure of the other’s position. Elizabeth notes that, “[Driver] and I always had this thing going on where I could never tell if she were serious or simply playing me for the sake of being entertained”. Driver’s introduction of Elizabeth to Legolas certainly seems frivolous, until Elizabeth starts taking it seriously, at which point Driver gets more restrictive (possibly jealous) and Elizabeth is forced to employ both bribes and blackmail in order to achieve her self-imposed goal of waking Legolas up to his true heritage. (She notes that at first he is distinguished by “farm-animal calm”, perhaps in contrast to her awareness of her own supposed position as Nurse Driver’s “domesticated animal”. By the end of the story, both are certainly more alive.) Yet for all that Driver seems a less than honourable employee, we can never be completely sure that Elizabeth should get her way, because we are constantly reminded of her instability. Although Elizabeth’s first conversation with Legolas ends when Driver inaccurately blames her for breaking one of the dishes being washed, Elizabeth is alarmingly fascinated by the shiny shards that result, and apparently has a history of stabbing people.
Legolas’ motivations remain as tantalisingly vague as Driver’s, and the question of whether or not Elizabeth is correct about him is never fully resolved. For every bit of seeming corroboration — watching his eye movements for tell-tale signs when she’s quizzing him, for instance: “He glanced up and left. I knew it. People look that way for Visual Recall” – there is an excuse. The evidence available is either on the edge of extraordinariness, not clearly over the line — throwing something into a bin, “a throw of about eight metres and he did it with a gesture no more studied or powerful than simple pointing” — or its flaws are recognised by Elizabeth herself, such as her observation of pointed ears, usually covered by hair, in a very grainy photograph. Over the course of the story, during which Elizabeth sets in motion various legal moves that will end with her release, and aims to persuade Legolas to travel with her to her family home when that happens, Legolas either decides to use Elizabeth to his own advantage (she gives him access to her money), or is dumb enough that he starts to believe what she’s telling him about a past life (Driver characterizes him as a “born idiot”), or is genuinely changed by her mind, and awoken to some awareness of his true nature. Like Driver, Legolas’ actions – or what Elizabeth tells us of his actions – somehow don’t add up to a complete whole.
We do gradually get a better picture of what Elizabeth means when she says that reality is of the mind, and a sense that she might be on to something – even if she isn’t quite sane. It’s equipoised science fiction: Elizabeth has a complete, coherent, explanatory view of the world, but it differs from the consensus. When she says that the existence of Middle Earth can be defined by “a place in spacetime and a position in someone’s mind”, we have no way of judging whether she’s perceived the nature of reality or just making up things to fit the pattern her broken mind observes. We can at least be confident, probably, that Elizabeth isn’t consciously lying. At one point, she notes that “One could never trust to theories of mind alone to bring plans as important as these into fruition”: it could be simple pragmatism, or it could be a subconscious acknowledgement that she’s delusional, but it’s unlikely to be the sort of thing that a deliberate fantasist would say. She also tells us that her therapist, Dr Lucy, has confirmed that the fact Elizabeth’s scrupulous honesty, to the point of not understanding why one would lie, is part of her pathology; although Elizabeth thinks she’s spotted holes in Dr Lucy’s theories, and in a way that chimes with the portraits of Driver and Legolas that she offers:
Most of Dr Lucy’s beliefs about minds relies on a heavy emphasis to their regularity, stability and cohesion – the entire theory under which she’s trying to make a name for herself is in fact called Cohesive Behaviourism: the Integrity Glue That Holds Us Together. Because of this she missed the significance of my self-determination (excusing herself by saying that abstract elements of mathematics were unsuitable tools for dealing with psychological analysis) so I never got to the part where I could whisk the cloth off my big revelation and tell her that some probability distributions have no mean, or average value. And neither do objects, or atoms, or people.
Whether or not Dr Lucy’s theory is accurate in this story’s world, it certainly seems to be the case that the Quantum Gravity series, in particular, is intended to test something very like Cohesive Behaviourism to destruction. The premise of those books is that a “quantum bomb” has fractured reality into a number of different realms; one corresponds to the popular conception of fairyland, one to hell, and so on. Like “Legolas Does The Dishes”, it never fully commits to one genre, although Quantum Gravity is at least unambiguously fantastic; a collision of fantasy and sf, which to date has been pacy but uneven. (Depending on your perspective, the level of inventiveness on display is either exhilarating or suffocating; I tend towards the latter view.) At the tale’s centre is a cyborg heroine, Lila Black, who ends up with several personalities cohabiting in her head, challenging her sense of self; in another story, she’d be as crazy as Elizabeth. Lila also finds herself in a relationship with an actual elf – a rock star elf, in fact – in which the intensity of sudden attraction is in part explained by an interaction of energy fields. Similar fields apparently surround humans in “Legolas Does The Dishes”, although a closer match for Elizabeth and Legolas’ relationship can be found in Living Next-Door to the God of Love. In that novel, teenage runaway Francine winds up in a “high-interaction sidebar universe” in which something very like Elizabeth’s theories about the nature of reality is provably true, and meets a man who turns out to be literally defined by, among other things, her love.
What “Legolas Does The Dishes” adds to this stew of ideas, though, is an answer to the implicit question: if mind shapes reality, what shapes mind? The answer, almost inevitably, is recursive, and goes back to why Elizabeth killed her mother:
In retrospect I think the mathematics could all go in my sessions with Dr Lucy and I should stick to aphorisms and cilches, affirmations and the like, with their dripfeed of empty hope into the consciousness.
This is also how poisons and drugs work, but they are for the body. The mind requires stories. Dosage is very important. The right measure at the right moment.
Another way of phrasing the story’s central question is to say that it’s not clear whether the arrival of Legolas represents the right dose of story for Elizabeth, or the wrong dose. Certainly it seems that it was a wrong dose of story — her mother lying to her — that provoked Elizabeth into committing murder. And Legolas provokes Elizabeth into getting out of the asylum, after twenty years of incarceration, through a combination of legal and more practical scheming. (Elizabeth also wonders whether confronting Driver with incriminating evidence of an inappropriate liaison will be too much story for the nurse.) But it could simply be that Legolas drives Elizabeth deeper into her delusion, since another way of describing Elizabeth is to say that she believes in a different story to us.
“Legolas Does The Dishes” feels, to me at least, more controlled than Robson’s recent novels. There is the electric sense that Elizabeth, even if she is right, is a fundamentally unstable individual; the casualness with which she hides a shard of Pyrex under her nail (because glass is much less dangerous than steel to a body’s energy field) is squirm-inducing. But there’s an equally powerful sense of what a wonder it might be if Elizabeth is right, such as her description of spray from Niagra falls as “world’s tears” that give sight like no other. There’s a good amount of humour undercutting the seriousness of Elizabeth’s pronouncements; having asserted that story is medicine for the mind, she reveals that her preferred tonic is Oprah Winfrey. There are deft inverting observations, such as Elizabeth’s reaction to a Porsche in terms that we would more commonly associate with, well, encountering an elf — its “ineffable strangeness”. And holding it all together is an expertly managed tension between reality and delusion. The care with which each element of the story is shaped and positioned with relation to the whole, in fact, reminds me of the last story of Robson’s that I read — “Little Bear”, in Pete Crowther’s anthology Constellations a couple of years ago. That was good enough that I’ve been keeping my eye out for more; and “Legolas Does The Dishes” fulfils its promise.