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Another Dimension
  Book Reviews by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro
May 2016

Title: Arkwright
Author: Allen Steele
Publisher: Tor

Arkwright, Allen Steele’s twentieth novel, tells the multi-generational story of humanity’s first colonizing mission to another star. The mission is made possible by Nathan Arkwright, whose “Galaxy Patrol” franchise not only provides inspiration and a fictional blueprint, but intriguingly funds a foundation dedicated to researching and overcoming the challenges of real interstellar exploration.

The idea is a fascinating one, and the novel contains lovely scenes; quiet character moments of touching emotion (on Earth and beyond), compelling philosophical questions made practical, and an exploration of the central tropes of science fiction informed by an abiding respect for its history and a deeply internalized sense of wonder. Despite this, I’m sad to say that Steele’s overall execution feels too pedestrian for the novel to achieve the full potential of its premise.

The novel is comprised of four linked novellas, and I think the first two are the best. The opening section, “The Legion of Tomorrow,” chronicles Kate Morressy’s investigation into the life and secrets of her grandfather, Nathan Arkwright. Through various flashbacks we see the early days and growth of science fiction, starting with an engrossing account of the 1939 WorldCon. The novel postulates an alternate history where our real-life so-called “Big Three”—Asimov, Clarke and Heinlein—are joined by a “Big Fourth,” Arkwright himself. The attention to detail in the evocation of the first World Science Fiction convention, the well-researched depiction of the personalities and works of figures like Fred Pohl, Don Wollheim, Cyril Kornbluth, Sam Moskowitz, and even Asimov himself, make the novel’s first quarter consistently absorbing.

It isn’t perfect; narratively speaking, each person who recounts their part of the story tends to sound like everyone else, and the motivation for the gradual reveal of Kate’s true lineage is perhaps overly stagey. But the characters are compelling and the settings vividly realized, pulling us in. A few years ago Jo Walton tapped into something powerful in her Hugo-winning fantasy novel Among Others; the acknowledgment that fictional characters can read science fiction and be molded by it, just like us. Steele is doing something similar here, connecting with the primal, unifying core of SF fandom and community experiences, and the effect is equally potent.

The second novella, “The Prodigal Son,” is also engaging, and I enjoyed Matt’s outsider perspective--another classic sf motif. But as the novel continued I found the elaboration of the plot increasingly languid and familiar. Anti-starship protesters evoke similar scenes in the film version of Contact; the discovery of the asteroid 2099 NA-2 and its threat to Earth recall a dozen more fully-fleshed near-impact stories; family conflicts begin to lose their affect; and dramatic events are let down by curiously flat pacing, making “The Long Wait” unfortunately aptly named. Things do pick up again in the final section, “The Children of Gal,” inventive and at times enthralling, but even here some of the coming-of-age and adventure elements feel a tad rote.

In a recent interview, Steele said, “I’d been kicking around the essential idea for the first part of the novel, “The Legion of Tomorrow,” for quite a few years, doing research between whatever else I was writing at the time. But no editor was interested in a novel about the history of the science fiction genre, and after a while it occurred to me that the only way I’d ever get to publish this story was if I wrote it in the context of a science fiction novel ... that is, a novel about science fiction that becomes a SF novel itself.”

In a way, that’s a shame. While a novel about the history of the science fiction genre may not have had commercial appeal, I for one would have loved to lose myself in its pages.

Title: Thirst
Author: Benjamin Warner
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA

In the 1960s J. G. Ballard published a series of idiosyncratic, highly stylized disaster novels—The Drowned World (1962), The Burning World (1964), The Crystal World (1966)—in which the science of the extinguishing mechanism becomes increasingly irrelevant and the ideas of surviving and reversing the disaster give away to exploring, adapting to and even embracing it. Thirst, Benjamin Warner’s first novel, is a similarly ambiguous take on what it might mean for a community to suddenly lose access to fresh water. On the surface, the novel might seem to belong to a more recent crop of apocalypse novels that dwell on horror and survivalism, but its literary sensibilities and the behavior of its protagonists suggest a slightly different, more elliptic, reading.

The plot is straightforward. After sitting in an unrelieved traffic jam for hours, Eddie finally decides to run home; he abandons his vehicle on the freeway and grinds through the eight or nine miles between him and his house. Once there he discovers his wife Laura hasn’t made it back, and so he sets out to look for her. He meets a strange-looking boy covered in what appears to be ash. Violence and unruly behaviors erupt on the streets, and Eddie eventually returns home to find Laura is alive. They compare notes about their experiences, take stock of their drinkable supplies, and try to decide what to do next.

As events progress Eddie and Laura are pushed to their physical and psychological limits. Dehydration and exhaustion result in hallucinogenic reveries, fugue-like states of dissociation, and the revelation of personal secrets previously withheld. As the world’s cruelty threshold increases, so does their own, adding to their burden. Stated this way, Thirst may sound like little more than an unusually cruel episode of Survivor with an arbitrary plot engine, but Warner’s muscular prose, near stream-of-consciousness approach and intense descriptions push this closer to Cormac McCarthy territory.

Soon it becomes clear that it is precisely what the characters lack—water—that will best serve to metaphorically express their deepest emotions. An early clue appears in the phrase, “a helplessness seeped in.” Later “the helplessness trickled back into him, but this time it didn’t fill him up.” Patty Davis, an overweight neighbor, “looked to be wading through deep water.” When the sun sets, “There was a drunkenness to the way the night had come down so thick and black. The air swirled above them loosely on a breeze. Eddie felt his mind begin to pitch.” A dozen pages later, “Eddie felt exhaustion rise over him as though the streambed had been full of a current he’d waded into.”

A few more examples: “Laura went back to reading, but the image of the jug floated in Eddie’s mind. The more he pushed it down, the more it bobbed back up to the surface;” “‘It can’t just be us. It’s like we’re floating’;” “Anger squeezed through him like water through a crack in a dam—a dam he hadn’t known existed, nor what it held at bay inside of him;” “Eddie stared into the clarity of the sky as he would into a lake, looking for its bottom.” And so on. Liquid imagery takes on every possible meaning. The physical world becomes a mirror for the characters’ inner landscapes. But reflections work both ways: Are their landscapes a mirror for the world’s brokenness instead?

The ongoing parallels between inner and outer experience are executed with impressive control, particularly for a first-time novelist, and this literary technique sustained me. Whether it will carry you through the novel, I’m not sure. Questions of character motivation loom large, which may upset or puzzle some readers. More importantly, the central premise is never explicitly addressed, though there are clues. Like in much of Ballard’s work, the enigma of identity is continuously explored. At one point Eddie and Laura have the following exchange:

But who will you be after all of this is over?”

Who will you be?”

He thought about that question. “I don’t know yet,” he said. “It’s impossible to tell.”

Just let it happen,” she said. “Then we’ll go from there.”

Your response to these lines may predict whether or not this is your kind of novel.

Read more by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro

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