Sunday, 14 October 2007
Arthur B tackles four novels by A.A. Attanasio.
The Reading Canary: a Reminder
Series of novels - especially in fantasy and SF , but distressingly frequently on other genres as well - have a nasty tendency to turn sour partway through. The Reading Canary is your guide to precisely how far into a particular sequence you should read, and which side-passages you should explore, before the noxious gases become too much and you should turn back.
The Radix Tetrad
The Radix Tetrad is an interesting case for the Reading Canary to follow. All four of the books are essentially independent from each other - while concepts from all three of the earliest books appear in the final volume, The Last Legends of Earth, reading the previous books is honestly not necessary to enjoy that one. There are, however, recurring themes throughout the books which are handled with a varying degree of success. Attanasio's own summary of the idea behind the books, from his postscript to The Last Legends of Earth, is as follows:
My intention has been to thematically structure each novel around one of the four cardinal directions that define us and our world: height, depth, width, and time.
Radix, a novel about stature, employs heightened language to define standing tall, our chief physical distinction among the apes. In Other Worlds concerns depth and uses deepening language to plumb the interiority of experience. With Arc of the Dream the narrative focus spans the breadth of society in an effort to circumscribe the limits of culture, where the group refracts into individuals, Finally, here, in The Last Legends of Earth, language and individual character flatten before the inexorable mystery of change we call time.
Attanasio, as you may have guessed, can be somewhat pretentious, and I'm not convinced his work ever meets the standards set by him, but about half the volumes of the Tetrad are worthwhile. The other half are terrible.
This is precisely the sort of minefield the Canary was made for...
Radix itself, the book from which the Tetrad takes its name, is Attanasio's first published novel, and - as with any first novel by a fantasy/SF author - is subject to the usual hyperbole on the part of the publisher. The front cover of my Corgi edition declares
Not since Tolkien's Middle Earth has a complete world of the imagination been so brilliantly realised...
while the back cover claims that the book is
A masterpiece of fantasy from the most talented new writer since Frank Herbert...
Of these two comparisons, the Herbert citation is far and away the most justified: the influence of Herbert in general, and Dune in particular, shines through on every level. The prose, the themes (fear being the mind-killer, psychics and mystic initiations, a young man discovering the godhood within), the scope, everything shrieks Herbert to me.
Fortunately - at least during the early parts of the book - it's pretty good Herbert, Dune updated for the cyberpunk generation. In the first section of the book, entitled Distorts, we are introduced to Sumner Kagan, a fat, fearful, moody teenager who also happens to be the Sugarat, a sort of vigilante serial killer who preys on the street gangs of "distorts", or mutants, who infest the grimy postapocalyptic city where Sumner lives with his mother. Attanasio doesn't expect us to have much sympathy for Sumner at this point, and indeed paints a marvellous picture of a delusional, spoilt brat who treats everyone like garbage and has a cruel streak a mile wide.
However, this cyberpunk premise has hidden depths - because, as we learn over the course of this opening act, Sumner is also a father at the age of 17, having been manipulated at the age of 12 to sire Corby. Corby, like his mother, is a voor - part of a race of strange interstellar gypsies who leap from body to body across the stars and are currently marooned on Earth. As it turns out, Corby is no usual voor, but a voor mage, a powerful entity of incredible power bred and groomed to be the mortal enemy of the Delph, the god-man who (it is suggested to us) has reshaped the postapocalyptic world of Radix in his image. The Delph, meanwhile, dispatches a bioengineered assassin from the mysterious eo civilisation off to the north to eliminate Corby - and of course, Sumner unwittingly gets dragged along for the ride.
If Attanasio had left it at this, this would have been an excellent basis for a cyberpunk-fantasy novel which could have made it really big back in 1981, when Radix was published and cyberpunk was hitting the big time. It'd be the thrilling tale of a bunch of horrible people being dicks to each other and getting what they deserve. But oh, there's more - so, so much more, and unfortunately it isn't up to the standards of the first third.
You see, by the end of the first part of the novel Sumner has been arrested, his deeds as the Sugarat having finally caught up with him. And this is where the New Age ideas really begin to creep into the book. I'm reasonably sure that Attanasio is sincere about his New Age philosophy - he dedicates the book to "Lightworkers across time and space" - but if he isn't he's done a good job of fooling me. Most of the third part of this book, Voors, consists of Sumner undergoing various initiatory experiences. He is drafted into the army and gains mastery over his body; he is recruited into the special forces and gains mastery over his brain; he confronts and simultaneously destroys and is reconciled with his son (in a fun inversion of the Hero's Journey), goes a little insane thanks to his son joyriding in his head, and then is apprenticed to a trickster-shaman bioengineered super-monkey in the desert, and achieves a full integration of his mind, body, and spirit through stimulation of the chakras. Then he becomes, like, totally enlightened, man, and he acts guru for the tribesman who saved him and introduced him to the super-monkey.
Played for laughs, this would be hilarious, but I'm pretty sure Attanasio is serious about all this - he wouldn't devote quite so much wordage to Sumner's initiatory experiences and the mystical insights he gains if he wasn't (he does, after all, dedicate the book to "LIGHTWORKERS across time and space"). And yet, this process doesn't redeem Sumner's character so much as wrecks it entirely: Sumner is nigh-unrecognisable after each stage of the initiation experience, and while that could be entirely intentional it's unhelpful from a literary standpoint - there's nothing constant about his character, and the changes in his personality seem to occur in sudden seismic shifts as opposed to gradual character development. Very soon nothing at all remains of the engaging fat serial killer we met at the beginning, or indeed any vestige of personality whatsoever: it's all been discarded so that Sumner can act as an everyman for the purpose of Attanasio waxing lyrical about spirituality. Oh, and he also discovers that he's the eth, the mystic counterpart of the Delph destined to destroy him.
I think this is the part where Radix lost me, the bit where it became clear that I was supposed to agree with what the mystical trickster super-monkey was teaching Sumner. Previously, the author had presented me with a succession of viewpoints, none of which I was expected to entirely agree with but some of which seemed to have more to them than others, and that was great, but once Attanasio pulls out his New Age ideas and says "Here, this is what you as the reader should be getting behind" all that subjectivity and choice is lost, and what is left is Carlos Castaneda in the year 3000. Whereas earlier Attanasio gently introduced to the reader to the various concepts and things that populated his future world, he abandons this about partway through Voors and starts slinging around neologisms and slang like crazy. Meanwhile, the dialogue and narration has been swamped with pithy little phrases which I think are meant to be deep and meaningful but come across as trite gibberish. Some examples of the terrible, terrible prose we are expected to digest in the second two thirds of this book (italics mean that a character is speaking with telepathy):
Your back is a road, boy - a road for your shadow and all the darkness of the world to cross.
Through a gargoyling of dissolving thought-forms, Sumner saw the starheart - the white luminosity from the first moment, from the origin of time - patterned like a retinal shadow over the vale of cypress and the old woman's sunken face.
An oompah of thunder bellowed directly overhead just as the soldiers shoved Sumner into the torch-circle. Dollops of cold air splashed out of the windless sky, and the Serbota straightened from their fear-crouches and began to sway serenely. They sensed the lifelove coursing through Kagan, and it amazed Sumner to see them moving with the music of his heartseeing. He uncurled from his thoughts to join them, and the angelust pulsing through him became knowing.
Let me put that last quote in context, because it underlines just how heavy handed Voors and Godmind, the second two parts of Radix, really are. Sumner is in a concentration camp for distorts - that's mutants - to which he and the Serbota - a clan of mutants he's befriended - have been brought. Once the lifelove starts spurting out of Sumner's swollen and engorged soul many camp guards are caught up in it and drop their weapons and hug the mutants, weeping. Sumner is able to overcome the resistance of the guards through the force of his love, like so:
Four of the guard around the crucifying-scaffold aimed to shoot, but an ache of ecstasy cramped through them, and they dropped their guns, sat down, and watched the incense of the milky way floating over the mountains.
and he rescues Drift, his hermaphrodite seer friend - but oh ho! The camp commandant is able to resist the overwhelming force of love! There is a scuffle and the commandant ends up teetering on the edge of the volcano the camp is built next to (I don't understand it either). Sumner reaches out to save the commandant, and the commandant drops his gun and tries to grab Sumner's hand - but oh ho again! Sumner's hand is slick and slippery with Drift's blood, the blood shed by the commandant's own orders! Needless to say, the officer fries.
The heavy-handed symbolism, mangled language and ridiculous proverbs become ever more burdensome as the book progresses, until it is simply impossible to follow the action in more than the most general sense. I didn't enjoy a single page of Godmind, the third part of the novel, apart from the brief depiction of the Delph as a man fallen victim to his own godhood. My eyes had glazed over from the constant bombardment of faked-up words like "psynergy", "lifelove", and "selfscan", to the point where I ended up just flipping pages and realising I hadn't actually absorbed any of the information on them, and then rereading them and discovering that there wasn't actually any information there in the first place. The ultimate conclusion of this drearsome novel is a bursting climax of frothing incoherence which brutally scatters the broad countryside with excessive adjectives, somewhat like this sentence. It is truly relieving to finish the book and put it aside.
One additional problem I have with Radix is its treatment of the mutant characters - they finish in second place all the time. None of them ends up being especially important to the conclusion: when Drift, the mutant hermaphrodite tries to suicide bomb the enemy's citadel in a charming act of self-sacrifice, Sumner launches into action to save him/her, denying him/her even that flashing moment of relevance. I can't help but notice that it's a genetically pure individual who becomes a spiritually enlightened ubermensch, even though every aspect of his prior life and every single decision he has made should count against him, even when pure-hearted, honest, genuinely good mutants fall short of enlightenment.
In fact, the most important people in the final part of the book - the Delph himself, Sumner, the Delph's lost love and ex-mentor from the distant past, and the government man from Sumner's home nation who is destined to reconcile the human and eo civilisations - are all pure-strain humans. The powerful eo are holographic recordings of the minds of pure-strain scientists from the distant past. The voor messiah is born of Sumner's loins, an heir to his pure genetic bloodline. The enlightened trickster super-monkey is not so much a mutant as he is a product of the experimentation of... pure-strain humans.
The distorts, while their suffering is portrayed as a terrible crime, are doomed to second place; it's not within their own means to better their lot, and they rely on Sumner to do so. There's even an incident where Sumner callously allows a mutant to die battling one of the Delph's robot assassins, so that Sumner can ambush it - in other words, individual mutants' lives only have worth so long as they don't get in the way of Sumner's epic quest to save the mutant race as a whole. This compares poorly with, say, Aslan's sacrifice in The Chronicles of Narnia, as interpreted by Dan elsewhere on Ferretbrain.
In any other Reading Canary feature, I'd stop here and tell you that the Radix Tetrad isn't worth reading, but fortunately each book in the Tetrad is a self-contained story, so there may still be hope for the other books. There is none for Radix itself. It opens incredibly promisingly, offering us a glimpse of a hip cyberpunk Frank Herbert. The conclusion reads like a sixth-rate fantasy author (I'm thinking Piers Anthony or Terry Goodkind) collaborating with a seventh-rate New Age writer to produce 42nd-rate crap.
In Other Worlds
Things take a turn for the better in the next book, In Other Worlds. This is a less ambitious project, only a third of the length of Radix, and seems to have been unjustly overlooked or underrated by other readers of the tetrad. It begins with a description of Carl Schirmer's last day as a normal human being, over the course of which we learn about his investment in aging drunk Caitlin's New York bar and his role in improving it, his infatuation with Caitlin's daughter Sheelagh, and his friendship since childhood with Vietnam-veteran-turned-scientist Zeke. Additionally, Carl's body becomes filled with ever-more-startling levels of static electricity. At the climax of the day he is converted entirely into light and implodes into a wormhole in his bathroom, the only evidence left behind being a holographic image of him that Zeke discovers burned into Carl's mirror.
It turns out that this bizarre event is part of the transtemporal feeding process of a five-dimensional entity, the eld skyle, that lives in the Werld. The accepted wisdom, as the eld skyle explains, is that the Welrd is a strange bubble of spacetime isolated just inside the black hole at the end of time that is preserved from being absorbed by the black hole by a freak of physics, and Carl has been reborn there as a by-product of the skyle's feeding process - it kidnaps people from past times, digests their imperfections, and excretes "Adamized" human beings complete with the full memories of their former lives. The Foke, the humans inhabiting the floating islands of the Werld, are either Adamized human beings or the descendents thereof, and are preyed upon by the technologically advanced zotl spiders who live in the upper regions of the Werld. Blundering around the Werld, Carl meets and falls in love with a Foke woman named Evoe, in a relationship planned for him by the eld, and naturally she's kidnapped by the zotl. At this point the eld offers to make Carl a deal: the eld will help Carl save Evoe if Carl will go back to his own time period on Earth and collect the three and a half tons of pig shit the eld needs to cure itself of a life-threatening illness. Equipped with incredibly powerful AI-enhanced equipment that grants him superheroic powers (but places him under the powerful influence of his armour's AI) by the Rimstalkers, the civilisation that lives in the darkness at the bottom of the Werld and eternally wars with the zotl, Carl heads back home to complete his mission.
And here is where things get interesting. The usual "man from our world gets whisked off to a fantasyland" story would have the entire story take place in fantasy land, but in this case Carl - having been transformed into a godlike entity through Adamization and Rimstalker technology - has to go home to Earth, where the really interesting thing happens: seeing what's happened to his friends and loved ones, and how they react to his return. Caitlin is eventually repulsed by what he's become, while Sheelagh descends into slightly crazy hero-worship. Zeke, meanwhile, has gone insane trying to work out what happened to Carl... but might also have some kind of telepathic connection to him, since he knows more-or-less exactly what happened to Carl in the Werld, and even guesses the new Carl's pseudonym.
This is where the most interesting possibility of the novel opens up - although I suspect it's an interpretation that Attanasio didn't intend. For Carl hasn't returned to the Earth he knows, but a parallel Earth where there is no war or international boundaries and the world is generally peaceful (a world, incidentally, that is threatened with zotl invasion by his very presence). And yet this world's Zeke, Caitlin and Sheelagh still remember him, and once Zeke is sprung from the mental asylum he begins to remember Vietnam. This, combined with the fact that Zeke writes his delusions down in an SF novel, and one of the segments of the book shares its title with Zeke's personal diary (The Decomposition Notebook) suggests that the entire novel might be a product of Zeke's madness, his delusional fantasy of the Werld being an attempt to find a happy ending for Carl and his disconnect with real-world history and current events being a consequence of his incarceration. Once Carl returns Zeke is able to return to society because he is able to talk to him as if he were a fellow human being again and not a cosmic enigma.
The fact that I am able to interpret the book in this way shows one of the major improvements over Radix: the freedom Attanasio grants the reader to assign meaning to the book. Unlike in Radix, we're not necessarily meant to entirely agree with any character. Carl often makes mistakes, is essentially doing what he's doing for the sake of Evoe, and often causes chaos when he allows his AI armour to take the lead. ("Oh shit, I accidentally sent a gravity wave through the zotl's time portal which will devastate their civilisation! Naughty, naughty armour!") Zeke is the major mouthpiece for New Age hippy nonsense in this book, but Zeke might just be crazy - and certainly has a far more optimistic view of the cosmos than the state of the Werld would necessarily suggest. Caitlin's likening of the Rimwalkers to devils seems apt when we read the description of their dark realm at the bottom of the Werld, and the Machiavellian scheme that they and the eld skyle have manipulated Carl into taking part in. The story as a whole, in fact, takes on a decidedly darker tone than the bulk of Radix, as we aren't entirely sure whether anything that's happened is necessarily for the best.
In Other Worlds is a mature and excellent novel. In every respect where Radix was half-formed and juvenile, In Other Worlds is tighter, more polished, and vastly more grown up. There's little-to-no filler, aside from a few slightly overlong chunks of exposition, and the prose has improved immensely.
The Arc of the Dream
This one beat me after only 20 pages. Possibly the cover should have warned me. A cross-cultural gang of four hold hands and emit energy out of their heads beneath a volcano which is spewing forth streams of lava in all the colours on the rainbow. On the back cover, dolphins skip and play with a shining UFO the size of a dinner plate.
So, the opening is like this: Donnie Lopes, a disabled teenager living in Hawaii, is hanging out on an old lava field while the rest of his classmates at the orphanage school go on a school trip. He finds a small silver object and picks it up. Immediately, 11 pages of exposition forcibly rape his face.
Attanasio's fake science is often dissatisfying, especially since his exposition is often hit-and-miss. Occasionally he manages to do it right, like in In Other Worlds, in which he gives the reader just enough exposition to suspend disbelief. The exposition forced on the reader at this point is of the other type: exposition which gives the reader slightly too much made-up information, which serves only to underline how ridiculous the situation we are being asked to accept is.
So anyway, it seems that the silver object is the physical form of a five-dimensional alien who is holidaying on Earth in order to chill with the most evolved, spiritual buildings on the planet (yes, it's the dolphins). By picking up the physical form of the alien, Donnie has broken the connection between it and its home dimension, or something like that, and the alien needs to convince him to put it back.
Now, for educated stupid beings like ourselves, who do not understand the beautiful song of the dolphins, the solution here is simple: simply say "Hey, kid, I'm an alien and you'll kill me if you don't put me back under that rock there. Be a sport and put me back and I'll give you cool powers." However, our five-dimensional alien is smarter than that, and decides to contrive a situation where four people - the people who need its intervention in their lives the most - will have to come together in order to put the alien back under the rock. At this point, Dirk the bully and his girlfriend turn up, push over the disabled kid, and steal the alien's tiny silver body. Then Dirk the bully gets pushed over and threatened by the Yakuza, because he apparently sold them some bad cocaine (wait, the Yakuza don't have better sources of cocaine than bratty teenagers?).
At this point, my eyes started watering from the horrible prose, the excess exposition, and the completely amateurish depiction of the dynamics between the teenagers. So I flipped around the book to find out the gist of the plot - to report it to you, faithful Ferretbrain readers - and get a bit of closure before discarding the waste of paper and moving on. Apparently Dirk has a spiritual enlightenment thanks to his contact with the alien - again with the motif from Radix of horrible, violent teenagers growing up to be spiritual supermen - a bunch more people get special powers from the alien and they come together to send it home. The FBI, orphanage authorities, and the dark side of the alien gets in the way. All the four spiritual volunteers - Dirk, some old Japanese guy who becomes Superman, a mad French girl who gets transported to a different world where she isn't insane anymore, and a middle-aged man who gets time travel powers or something - end up getting precisely what they need out of the experience.
Note how I didn't mention Donnie there. Donnie turns up a few more times in the book, as far as I can tell. His role is to be abused by Dirk, get possessed and healed by the dark side of the alien, try to kill Dirk at the climax, fail, and then suffer horrible nightmares for the rest of his days. The only joy in his life is a brief bit in the epilogue, where it's mentioned that Dirk gets adopted by the middle-aged dude and fucks off to Illinois, and Donnie was absolutely fine with that.
Perhaps I identify a little too much with kids who get bullied in stories, but I somehow feel that Donnie was owed more. He was the only character that Attanasio could get me to feel any kind of sympathy for in the brief segment of the book I properly read, and he gets put through several kinds of hell. Isn't he owed something better than "erm, his leg gets better, only he succumbs to the dark side, so he doesn't really get much of a prize in the epilogue and he's haunted by terror and fear for the rest of his life"?
In the 11 page shitspray of exposition at the start of the book the alien notes that Donnie was a soldier in a past life, who killed many and died himself in war. Just what is Attanasio trying to say here? Are Donnie's crippled leg and dead parents the karmic consequences of his past life? If that's the case, isn't he about due for a break? If that's not the case, why does he get the shitty end of the stick? Combined with the second-class status of the mutants in Radix it's troubling. For God's sake, Attanasio, show me you care: let a disabled or genetically ill person be a hero in one of your books for once. Otherwise, I'm going to have to suspect you're in the camp that blames disabled people for their own suffering ("it's karma, dude") and call you a prejudiced arsehole. I think part of the reason I often find myself perplexed, amused, or disturbed by New Age beliefs is that the New Age pretty much depends on ripping particular beliefs out of their original cultural contexts and putting them in a brand new framework - and as Dan's pointed out, often when you take religious beliefs out of their original context they end up freakish and occasionally even unhealthy. I worry that Attanasio's attitude to reincarnation may fall into this category. Really, is being a soldier really that terrible of a crime? And even if it is, isn't "being killed in a war" enough to discharge the debt? Never mind, though: I'm sure that Donnie will be reincarnated as someone who isn't horribly broken, just as the distorts who die in Radix so that Sumner may live will be reincarnated as proper human beings as opposed to untermensch the next time around.
Somehow, incidentally, the publishers convinced Norman Spinrad and Roger Zelazny to say nice things about this book, so those are two quote-whores whose opinions I'll never trust again.
The Last Legends of Earth
In The Last Legends of Earth a whole slew of concepts from earlier books - as well as a character from Arc of the Dream come back in a strikingly reimagined form so that Attanasio can have one last play with the themes he's been exploring. Happily, absolutely no knowledge of the earlier books in the series is required, so nobody needs to suffer through Radix or Arc of the Dream to enjoy this one.
We are back to the conflict between the Rimstalker and zotl civilisations, although it's very different from the war depicted in In Other Worlds. The zotl are still terrifying spider-things which thrive on the pain of other intelligent species; the Rimstalkers are still manipulating people in order to conduct a war against them, but this time the manipulation is on a truly grand scale. The Rimstalker Gai has been assigned to produce an artificial planetary system from the portions of her multidimensional spaceship, and to populate this system with resurrected creatures from Earth (which died with the Sun two billion years ago) to act as bait for the zotl - and then she is supposed to find a legendary superweapon and send it through a zotl hyperspace link to their homeworld to wipe the suckers out. At first Gai resurrects the Tryl, lizard-people who arise five billion years after humanity's extinction, but they turn out to be too advanced for her - they are too sympathetic to be used as bait, so she uses humanity instead.
Meanwhile, about five thousand years into the seven thousand year lifespan of the artificial system Ned O'Tennis (yes, Ned O'Tennis), a fighter pilot for the Aesirai civilisation which collaborates with the zotl and rules most of the system, meets Chan-ti Beppu, a woman of the Foke who travel the extradimensional Overworld that exists between hyperdimensional links, and falls in love with her. A dimensional accident, however, leaves him and his ship thousands of years in the past. Chan-ti sets out to find him, since travel in the Overworld allows one to visit past and future times, and as they try to find each other they become vitally important parts of the Rimstalker's strategies against the zotl.
Convoluted as the plot sounds, it unfolds at a sufficiently restrained pace that it never becomes overwhelming. This is first and foremost an adventure story, interspersed with short vignettes showcasing especially interesting events and lives during the seven thousand year span of the star system; out of all of the Radix books, this is the one where Attanasio's personal philosophy is the least intrusive. The science is 99% bullshit, of course, but it's reasonably consistent bullshit, like a good Star Trek episode. I especially enjoyed the part-melancholy part-apocalyptic tone of the closing chapters of the book, as the worlds are gradually depopulated of human beings (emigrating elsewhere through the Overworld) and the death-obsession of those individuals who were resurrected by the planetary system becomes achingly intense. The underlying message is essentially a restatement of the central statement of Buddhism: so much that's wrong with the world comes down to the desire of living things to survive regardless of the cost to others, and sometimes we just need to let go and embrace destruction. While I don't think it quite has as much literary merit as In Other Worlds, I think The Last Legends of Earth is a better novel overall (In Other Worlds feels more like an expanded short story by comparison).
The Canary Says
Avoid Radix and Arc of the Dream like the plague; if you really must listen to Attanasio's important and deep ideas about spirituality, go check out his blog instead - his recent post on Transentience reminds me of the worst parts of Radix. Pick up In Other Worlds and The Last Legends of Earth if you happen to chance across them, but don't pay too much of a mark-up for them: while they're somewhat rare these days, they're not quite vital enough to be worth especially inflated prices.