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The Amphora Project
William Kotzwinkle
Grove Press, 335 pages

The Amphora Project
William Kotzwinkle
William Kotzwinkle, born in 1943, is perhaps best knowe for his novelization of E.T. the Extra Terrestrial (on which he collaborated with Melissa Mathison, the original screenplay writer) and The Bear Went Over the Mountain. He has won the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel for Doctor Rat in 1977, and has also won the National Magazine award for fiction.

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A review by Paul Kincaid

When William Kotzwinkle's hero is about to identify the source of the terrible events that have beset Planet Immortal he declares: "Nature embraces impossibility and overcomes it because she's not afraid to exaggerate." Unfortunately, too many authors seek to emulate that natural profligacy, with wild and exaggerated stories. Sometimes they fail because they go too far and the story descends into senseless confusion; more often they fail because they don't go far enough, some conservative core stops short of the thoroughgoing invention that such a story demands. William Kotzwinkle, the literary maverick who gave us Doctor Rat and Fata Morgana among many others, rather surprisingly falls into the second camp.

One should be warned by the fact that the publishers describe The Amphora Project as a book that "combines elements of science fiction and fantasy and transcends the boundaries of both." That, alas, is a sure fire formula for a book that heads straight into the safest heartland of the genre, and stays there. This is a deeply conservative novel which rings all the bells you would expect of a traditional SF novel of fifty years ago, and does nothing fresh with them. If it had appeared fifty years ago, this might have been fondly remembered as a minor classic by now.

Coming out in the twenty-first century, it already feels as if the world is moving faster than Kotzwinkle's imagination. The setting is unimaginably far in the future, when mankind has spread across the stars and is contemplating immortality and Earth is not even a distant memory; yet city scenes are described in terms of plate-glass windows, lifts, muzak, store fronts and the like. Cars fly, but they are described and treated just like the cars on our roads. Kotzwinkle tricks his novel out with all sorts of futuristic paraphernalia, aliens and robots and spaceships, but then layers them over a world that, visually and socially, is indistinguishable from late twentieth century America.

Of course, all of this could be ironic. In fact it probably is; irony is a difficult thing to sustain in print, but he does lard the book with silly names and illogicalities that suggest we're not meant to take this too seriously. But irony alone is not enough to sustain a novel, and there are few other rewards for the reader.

Stop me if you've heard this, but this is a novel crowded with interstellar pirates and cute little robots and big cuddly aliens and X-wing fighters diving into the depths of a metal moon to blow it up. Okay, the pirate is fat Jockey Oldcastle and his companion is reptilian rather than hairy, but you get the impression that Kotzwinkle isn't really trying too hard here.

The super-rich coterie that rule Planet Immortal have commissioned research that will indeed make them immortal, inspired by a race of Immortals who were themselves inspired by long-since-vanished Ancient Aliens. But when the Amphora Project, as it is called, is triggered, it doesn't make people immortal but turns them into crystal. The Observer, the woman with no name who heads up the repressive secret service, must discover what went wrong and how to stop it before all human life is wiped out. In this it turns out that her chief allies are on the wrong side of the law, including Jockey and Lizardo. Our Luke Skywalker character is Adrian Link, an inspired entomologist, with his cute robot sidekick, Upquark, who turns himself into a suitcase in moments of stress. It is Link who works out that the Amphora Project is a Trojan Horse for an attack by transdimensional aliens, and the stage is set for a huge cast of ludicrous characters to come together to effect a most unlikely resolution, and of course everything turns out right in the end because this is a comedy after all.

Don't mind me giving the ending away, it isn't going to come as anything of a surprise, and I suspect that most people who aren't dedicated Kotzwinkle fans will probably have given up long before then.

Copyright © 2006 by Paul Kincaid

Paul Kincaid is the administrator of the Arthur C. Clarke Award and reviews for most of the critical journals in science fiction, as well as contributing to numerous reference books.

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