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Musing on Books
Obsidian Butterfly, Laurell K. Hamilton, Ace, January 2000, 21.95
Bios, Robert Charles Wilson, Tor Books, November 1999, 22.95
I loved C. S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia as a child. Even discovering that the series was a thinly veiled front for Christian symbolism and theory when I was an unruly teen did not take those books away from me, and I look forward to the day when I can read them with my own children. The Happy Prince and The Selfish Giant, both by the flamboyant Oscar Wilde, sank hooks into my sentimental heart at a tender age, and again, shouted discourse over the ugly nature of subtext (be good, suffer, die and go to Christian heaven) during a very loud, and very divided English class, did not remove them. I have nothing whatsoever against a subtext that preaches love, duty, honor, and a good death, and you know, if it's attached to someone's moral precept of an afterlife, I'll put up with it. But.
Tathea isn't a fantasy novel. It's certainly heralded as such, but it's really The Celestine Prophecy meets the Jehovah's Witness' Watchtower. When I started it, I thought it was heavy handed allegory . . . but allegory is too subtle a word for the finished product.
Tathea is Empress of Shinabar. The book opens with the assassination of her husband (the Emperor) and her small son, her rescue from a similar fate, and her return to the land of her mother. There, struck by a need to know the purpose of life, she goes to the resident wise man, who tells her that the cost of such knowledge (implying of course, that there is an answer) will be steep. She is resolute, and following his instructions goes to the shore to await the boatman who will take her on a guided tour of a much earlier time, in which both answer and the price for it will be made clear. Sort of.
We as readers get to travel with her through two utopias (two heavy-handed philosophical constructs replete with an evil that should try out for the role of a Bond villain because it's got a better speech than the last one, and James Bond movies need the "this is how the world is going to end at my hands!" speech. But I digress) and beyond and as she does we get to discover that there is God and there is the adversary (Asmodeus). But we're not as fortunate as she is because, at the end of a feat great of daring, she wakes up in the boat clutching The Book, with no memories of her voyage.
The Book is an artifact that was meant to be given to man so that man might find the true path to God.
As the underpinning of a novel, I can accept this. But . . .
There's a point at which the title character is watching a play and she finds it wanting because the protagonist shows no human emotion, no flaws or failings by which the audience could be brought to identify with his predicament, and therefore take more out of the experience . . . and that's the problem with the whole novel. Everything has a f lat, very preachy quality to it; nothing surprises.
Even so, I gamely continued until Tathea's vision of another world in which there was a garden, a man, a woman, and the adversary; the tree of knowledge, the eating of the forbidden fruit, the coming of mortality and sin . . . and the birth of the son of God. At that point I kind of pulled the pillow over my head and hoped the book would improve with sleep. It didn't. I'm sure that people with a much better knowledge of things biblical than I can point out why the broad strokes and the specific strokes are different, but that's beside the point—Tathea's supposed to be a fantasy novel.
This is not a book for me. It's not so much that I can't get past the message, as that there's nothing but message. The protagonist goes from bereaved Empress to effective Saint in one revelatory evening, and then begins to proselytize; she makes friends, she shows them The Book, and most of them see the truth in the Book and begin to follow its doctrine. There are those that don't, and she is sad that they will go to hell, but well, they were given the choice. She is pursued by the adversary and those who serve him, people die, she sees that her people are not ready for The Book yet, and that's sort of about it.
Except that I had to read 522 pages of it and you have to read a few paragraphs.
Okay, that was long enough.
First, the book sports a very distinctive, very attractive cover that is different from any of the previous paperback covers; it's nicely designed, and looks very upscale. Second, it does seem to be a tad longer than the previous novels in that the type isn't all that big and the book isn't all that thin. And third, the series that started with Guilty Pleasures (I can't think of a more appropriate title for either that novel or the entire Anita Blake series) and moved at a brisk clip to Blue Moon continues in the same vein, if you'll pardon the pun. The contemporary here and now is still peopled with the undead, and the undead still have constitutional rights. But Anita knows that most of them are monsters, and that their real nature will out eventually, and she's there with artillery because she's licensed to kill. Or whatever it is you call putting the undead to rest. Hardcover or no, it's the same Anita Blake in new clothing, which for people who like to relax on the roller coaster, with the certainty of both safe thrills and a neat exit, is a very good thing.
Speaking of new clothing, Anita starts the book having totally trashed—with bloodstains—her work clothes (it's okay, the blood wasn't hers). She's tired, she's home, and she's not looking forward to a long conversation on the telephone. Which is sort of good, because when the phone does inevitably ring, it's her friend Edward the bounty hunter. Those of you who have followed the series so far know that she owes him a favor, and this is the book where he calls it in. There's a serial killer loose, and Edward is actually . . . frightened. Anita Blake the legal Executioner, hasn't really run into that before, and besides, it's pay him back or shoot it out with him, so she packs up her full regalia and goes to his home town. Where she finds that the monster Edward, who has always had a soft spot for her . . . has developed other soft spots and possible questions about the direction his life has taken. Nice stretch of character for Edward, and it makes Anita once again question the decisions she's made with regards to Jean-Claude and Richard. Hamilton also introduces Olaf to Anita, another Executioner-type and a man who makes vampires seem pleasant. She's worried that he's a soul-mate. He's happy at the thought. We'll be seeing more of him, I can almost guarantee it.
So . . . there's not a lot of her two ex-beaus, but Edward's private life is certainly a draw, and his friends are . . . well, they make him look like a calm, sane, rational, normal person.
Is it worth the hardcover price? Yes. Go forth and buy in confidence.
The prologue of the novel is a simple act of sabotage, but as anything in a Wilson book, the simple is driven by the complex, and the act is at best half understood by the woman who, in a moment of privacy, on impulse, commits it. She is conducting a medical examination of a young woman with unusual augmentations, and she removes her patient's thymostat implant, an implant that dampens fear, anger, rage, joy, hormones—anything that makes a person profoundly human. There is no freedom on earth; there are Families, and they essentially own the human universe. Take the young woman now missing a thymostat (Zoe's her name) as an example: she was designed (and presumably paid for) by a group of people with an interest in Isis, and her sole purpose in life is to walk the planet's surface. She has one friend: father-figure Avrion Theophilus, a person with an extremely vested interest in her performance.
But she has been sheltered from people for a long time; she can't stand the simplest of day-to-day touches—a handshake, and she has to work to force herself not to flinch; she's lived in a thymostat-imposed isolation while she trained hard to prepare for her life's completion: the explore the planet Isis. But life is not predictable. On the stations of Isis—unavoidable pitstops on the road to Isis itself—she meets people. She meets them without the chaperone of the thymostat to control and suppress her reactions.
Wilson, in his two hundred pages, has created a sense of complex political structure which most books several times as long can't dream of achieving—but the background worldbuilding is that: background. Wilson understands that in order to have believable characters, they must come from believable places; they must be a product of the experiences of their past, however much of that past is obscured, and to that end, the texture of the world out of which these people are born, and in which they're tangled, is absolutely necessary.
Zoe meets Tam Hayes. Tam Hayes has no part in the life that was planned for her at birth—should she survive—and she knows it... but, to quote another station hand, Elam Mather, "life touches life."
This is a book about defenses and the breaching of defenses; about life, about death, and about the complicated way in which the two are interwoven; about friendship and the things that make life valuable even when death is unavoidable. Better, it's written by a person whose every word shows that he's listened to, and absorbed the way people speak when they're nervous, frightened, angry. He has no vested interest in turning those people into soap boxes or apologists; you can believe, reading Wilson's work, that every book is a struggle between structure and chaos—the structure a novel imposes and the chaos understanding of real people makes of that structure.
Every book that Robert Charles Wilson has written bears that stamp: He is never condescending. He is never less than clear-eyed and lucid. He never reduces humanity to equations and numbers. Although on the surface, the Hugo-nominated Darwinia and Bios have very little in common—the one being an alternate history (of sorts) in a past that echoes the familiar just enough to evoke and enforce the foreign, the other being possibly the most 'techie' novel Wilson has written—his acute observation of the human condition is evident from page one. Is he always successful? No, although I count Bios as one of his better works; if it lacks the finer character details of Mysterium (which is, I think, the novel of Wilson's that I best like), it also lacks the abrupt and structurally shaky ending. But he tries more when he stretches than most of us do, and if his books are flawed, they're flawed in the way that people you love are flawed; you don't love them any less; you may even love them more.
Don't judge Bios by its size or its cover; it's worth the time to hunt down and pick up.
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