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The Fourth Circle
Zoran Zivkovic
Ministry of Whimsy Press, 285 pages

The Fourth Circle
Zoran Zivkovic
Zoran Zivkovic was born in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, in 1948. In 1973 he graduated from the Department of General Literature, specializing in the theory of literature, Faculty of Philology of the University of Belgrade. He received his master's degree in 1979 and his doctorate in 1982 from the same school.

He is the author of the following books: Contemporaries of the Future (1983), Starry Screen (1984), First Contact (1985), The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (1990), The Fourth Circle (1993), Essays on Science Fiction (1995), Time Gifts (1997, 2000 US), The Writer (1998), The Book (2000), Impossible Encounters (2000), and Seven Touches of Music (2001), The Library (2002), Steps Through The Mist (2003) and Hidden Camera (2003). His short fiction includes: "The Astronomer" (1999), "The Bookshop" (2000), "The Cone" (2000), "The Confessional" (2000), "The Train" (2000) and "The Window" (2000). All were published in Interzone.

He lives in Belgrade.

Zoran Zivkovic Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Seven Touches of Music
SF Site Review: Time Gifts

Past Feature Reviews
A review by William Thompson

Imagine, if you will, finding yourself standing alone upon a horizon-less plain, devoid of all features except the level, dust-laid ground and the night sky overhead, swept with stars constant in their brilliance. Though the constellations appear entirely wrong to you, and the land lifeless and lacking in atmosphere, you are not disturbed by this or the pervading, preternatural silence: you are here because of The Circle, before which all else seems inconsequential. When you first arrived, two suns had hung low in the distance, just as you know a third will eventually rise behind you. Time is short, for you have to arrive at The Circle's circumference, somewhere ahead, before the new dawn breaks. Though you are unsure of its exact location, you know somehow it lies ahead of you, just as you know that the lack of oxygen is no threat, as well as the direction to travel across the empty terrain, your footsteps stirring the dust but leaving no prints of their passage. Others will have gathered, waiting for you to take your place along The Circle's circumference. It is there, somewhere up ahead, and when you step to take your place upon its perimeter, you know there will be no answers, but only new questions: "the ones that mattered."

This alien and dream-like landscape, both physical and abstract, provides the initial setting for what is Serbian author Zoran Zivkovic's most ambitious book to date. Noted for his use of short stories which link into larger organic themes, this compositional structure is ingeniously adapted here to create a cosmology that attempts no less than to reconcile and converge the long-standing tensions between physics and religion into a comprehensive and metaphysical whole. The end result, regardless of whether one concurs with the author's speculation or conclusions, becomes a marvel of both the fictional imagination and the author's adopted compositional form. Intellectually challenging and often densely complex, the reader is nonetheless carried along by the novel's mystery and vividly surreal imagery, which at times, similar to his other story collections, can find themselves expressed within the most mundane or domestic of circumstances. However, unlike the author's later work, in which he has proven himself a master of a concise and minimal style, here his writing is most often typified by long and flowing prose which perfectly punctuates and balances his more usual precise and understated sentences. In its rich tapestry of prose and compositional skills, as well as in its imaginative leaps and intellectual sophistication, The Fourth Circle must be considered, so far, as the author's masterpiece, an acclamation that extends well beyond a mere appreciation of Zivkovic's own and singular work.

Framed within four sections, including a prologue and epilogue (which does not appear where expected), each section refers in ascending (or descending) order to a particular circle or collection of shorter stories whose number, as with other references throughout the narrative, bear numerological and mathematical significance. While it might appear obvious that the four circles referred to bear reference to Dante's Circles of Hell, to assume this alone would be to overlook other allusions that possess equal if not greater bearing upon the evolving stories: the mystical Orbicular Triskelion or more importantly, the Tibetan Wheel of Dependent Origination, whose symbols and perceptions of enlightenment and existence directly inform and frame this narrative as much as Dante's more Christian based vision of human experience and salvation. Nor can the symbol's significance for mathematics and physics be neglected, as the circle's universal importance, both for science and religion can be traced within the narrative mirroring as well as informing one another, just as does, in a cosmological sense, heaven and hell, each perceived perhaps, as variants of each other.

Metaphorically following Dante's descent, as well as the concept of Dhamma, three main story threads weave and intersect within the novel. The first is that of an old man who has served his Master, a painter of medieval frescos, for most of his adult life. Sharing in the reflected glory of his employer, whose work is greatly sought after by both the Church and the nobility, his contentment is disturbed by his Master's apparent torment by demons during the wet autumn months, when he cannot apply his art due to humidity. Further, unbeknownst to their religious patrons, the Master has chosen to appropriate the faces of rustic peasants to depict the Saints, a practice his servant is certain would be considered blasphemous were the Church ever to discover it. In particular, his choice of subject for his portrayal of Marya in deeply troubling: a young woman seen hawking wares in the market one day, singularly beautiful, but whose features betrayed a hint of carnality. Now, whenever he views the faithful looking up in adoration of his Master's portrait of the Mother of God, he is reminded of the original woman's inherent sensuality, and made anxious by the sin he thereby sees reflected, imagining that the faithful discern it too, and are unconsciously, like himself, stirred by lustful feelings. So far no one has appeared to notice his Master's sources of inspiration, and they have managed to keep his seasonal afflictions hidden. Except for his Master's occasional and temporary torments, only his servant's pious imaginings of damnation -- which are considerable -- have been plagued by their secret. But this is about to change when the Master begins a new project which he hides from everyone's view, including his assistant's.

The second story thread follows the retreat and self-imposed exile of a brilliant computer programmer, Srinavasa, to a remote jungle temple. There he creates a computer to keep him company, which he programs to be feminine in personality. The result is an emerging sentience possessing all the complaints and frustrations a woman rightfully confronts when confined within a male-dominated society, an environment born into that she can't seem to effectually change or enlarge to accommodate her evolving identity, complicated further by the fact that the man in question is her own creator, in this case having programmed her personality to suit his own purposes. Some of "her" digitally domestic plights and gripes are suitably barbed and humorous, depicting the stereotypical male in a far from flattering light, if nonetheless uncomfortably accurate. But events within this storyline soon take a decidedly surreal twist when a monkey accidentally impregnates her while playing upon her keyboard -- not an event it appears Sri had anticipated -- and afterward unexpected visitors begin mysteriously turning up at the temple, in some ways like the magi, including the venerable Buddha.

The third intertwined storyline does not appear until late in the others' development: Sherlock Holmes receives a mysterious letter, sender unknown, bearing the single drawing of a circle. Though Watson is typically mystified by the contents, Holmes quickly discerns that the sender can be no other than his nemesis, Moriarty. But Moriarty is dead, his body fished out of a lake a week prior. Was his letter meant to be a message from beyond the grave? And why is Holmes living at 221-A Baker Street, and his housekeeper named Simpson? The game is indeed afoot!

Interspersed within these narratives are several shorter anecdotes, some only a few pages in length, others comprising more than a single chapter. Even when seemingly self-contained, all bear some relevance to the three main narratives, encapsulated within their ongoing themes and action, with some bearing fruition only near the end, joining one of the main storylines, and all, including the three major narratives, merging to form a final conclusion, closing but one of what have been many ongoing circles. Of the singular story chapters, "Star Song" is particularly moving and effective in its beautiful and mythic tale of sacrifice and those tragically left behind. Other, shorter sequences, which will have bearing upon events latter within the novel, are the tales of the roulette player, the physicist crippled by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis who becomes seduced by his nurse, and a mathematician slain at the Roman siege of Syracuse: the second can be identified with Stephen Hawking, the third with Archimedes. The scientists Ludolph van Ceulen and Nikola Tesla also make cameo appearances.

In its attempt to provide a unified metaphysics, perhaps no work of such ambition has been written since David Lindsay's A Voyage to Arcturus (though admittedly such a sweeping statement may be more a reflection of gaps in my own reading history, and those wishing to fill in any omissions are welcome to do so). A marvelous riddle, in certain respects resembling the labyrinthine library (a motif Zivkovic is to turn to in later stories, such as those found in the recent Leviathan Three anthology) of Eco's Name of the Rose, its long overdue publication in the United States should do much to establish Zivkovic's reputation among the more cerebral and literary advocates of speculative fiction, within the genre as well as outside. Masterful in execution, at once playful and earnestly serious, its conjecture as to an alternative vision of humanity and creation, and the hidden harmony which exists between spirituality and science, become but reflections of a greater and identical yearning for understanding and meaning that attempts to comprehend more than mere mortal experience and materiality, probing deeply and with artistry into the most fundamental and universal questions that have haunted human existence. While the novel's conclusions remain speculative, they reaffirm the intellect as well as the soul, the abstract and the physical, the bestial and the spiritual, those warring reflections of our own inner nature and conflicted self, seeing all as an extension of but a greater mystery whose ultimate aims are no less than a realization of the infinite. And perhaps the author has given us a clue, within the very act and implications of his own narrative creation, as to what awaits us beyond our self-imposed veil.

Copyright © 2004 William Thompson

In addition to the SF Site, William Thompson's reviews have appeared in Interzone, Revolution Science Fiction and Locus Online. He also has worked as a freelance editor for PS Publishing, editing The Healthy Dead and Grandma Matchie, by Steven Erikson, and Night of Knives, by Cameron Esslemont. He lives in Mesilla, New Mexico.

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