Ingrained with mythology, allegory and author indulgence (3/5)
|Cover: Richard Hescox (1991)|
Taking a look at my 553-book database and using a few analysis tools, some interesting things arise: originally, when I started reading SF in 2007, my focus was on late-80s/early-90s science fiction with authors like Greg Bear, Iain M. Banks, William Gibson, and Kim Stanley Robinson; now, the most represented years in my collection are 1968 and 1974, both years with 20 books in my collection. This is in part to my interest in John Brunner’s work but also because I’m more willing to dabble in forgotten paperbacks and take the chance of discovering a classic with the risk of stumbling upon some stinkers.
So, now when I do buy a book from the late-80s/early-90s, it’s for the sake of nostalgia and filling a gap in my library which hasn’t seen any new life breathed into its already stellar repertoire; however, I always hesitate. The unknown novel The Unwound Way, with an uninviting cover by two unknown authors was, obviously, an impulse buy. It is not a regrettable decision, but my time definitely could have been spent more wisely on one of my other 154 unread novels.
According to the “About the Authors” page, Bill Adams had written mystery fiction under the name T. M. Adams and, with some interweb research, wrote some short stories in the same genre in the 1970s and 1980s. Cecil Brooks lived in Pennsylvania and his written work seemed to have been nil until 1991 when he co-authored The Unwound Way and its 1994 sequel The End of Fame. I reckon either the sales or feedback about the novel (only one review published in Locus, #369 October 1991) weren’t forthcoming because nothing else has been written by these two fellows since 1994… which is a shame because the talent is there, just not the delivery.
Rear cover synopsis:
“ALL THE WORLDS A STAGE
Evan Larkspur dreamed of greater glory than his play writing could ever bring him. But his newfound career as officer on a star-survey mission ended in disaster almost as soon as it had begun. And when he returned home, the only survivor of a freak accident that had flung his ship out of known space, the found that a century had passed—and though Larkspur the playwright was now famous, Larkspur the explorer was a wanted man.
Buried in his memory was the fate of his ship; hidden on his person was the star—access data that would have been worth several fortunes—if it were not scrambled beyond repair. The repressive First Column government coveted the data and would not hesitate to strip Larkspur’s mind in an attempt to decipher it.
There was nothing a deceased playwright or a vanished explorer could do against the Column. And so Larkspur fled to the fringe worlds, hiding his identity, intent only on survival—until, on an obscure planet called Newcount Two, he discovered a powerful legacy he never knew he had…”
During his university years, Larkspur was involved in three things: girls, writing plays, and the brotherhood of Kalanists. While his plays never found popularity, his frolicking was intermittent and successful and his association with the Kalanists brought his peace of mind; ‘twas a time of self-discovery and relative freedom under the First Column government. However, life wasn’t challenging enough and simply being known as a failed playwright didn’t win any hearts, so the young Larkspur enlisted in the Navy was sped off to the stars with something less than wanderlust.
The mission to map the stars was interrupted by a disaster onboard; all indications pointed towards manmade sabotage and awakening the officers from cryogenic sleep had mixed results of insanity and dissociative catatonia. Larkspur was one man who awoke with his mind intact and he quickly drew to a position of leader, one who must confront the disaster, the perpetrator and find a solution for the ship stuck in the dimensions between space and time. His steady hand doesn’t salvage the ship or save the crew, rather he is shifted further along his world’s timeline into a future he hardly recognizes… yet the world recognizes him—not his face, but his accomplishments.
Unwilling to enter the limelight, Larkspur assumes an alias while maintaining a series of menial jobs shuttling around the sphere of human affairs. His spell of innocuous existence is broken when Senator Condé hires him for a mission of pure subterfuge, an action fit for the repressed flamboyant actor in the playwright. His mission, with promised protection from the influential Senator, calls for him to jaunt off to Newcount Two, a small uninhabited Earth-like planet, for the purpose of securing an archeological dig site which greatly interests the Senator. Reportedly holding ancient artifacts of a giant bipedal race, two sections of the dig site, something like a barrow, are to be secretively cordoned off and the rest of the dig to go ahead as planned; the motley crew, a group of experienced amateurs rather than expert professionals, is composed of one dashing lass, “an eccentric oldster, an academic know-it-all, a shirttail boy and his ineffectual father, a monk, a mystic warrior, and a misanthropic redhead” (46).
Acting as “His Excellency, Alun Parker, Sub-Commissioner for Non-Human Artifacts” (29) representing the Column, Larkspur adopts the officious manner which his roles exudes, yet additional, more natural mannerisms creep into his persona which cause some of the site workers to silently question his role—surely, not all officers are well-read in theater, Kanalism, piloting, and philosophy. Regardless, his pristinely pleated uniform convinces even the strongest minds at camp, but this doesn’t stop an interloper from attempting murder. Larkspur’s quick reflexes as a pilot save his life, the life of the little vixen named Ariel, and the evidence onboard the sabotaged flitter. His suspicions piqued yet vaguely directed, Larkspur steeps in wanton ire.
When the furtive Larkspur returns to camp, the dig crew have revived one of their most important machinations for the dig and, in hasty attempt to test it, activate a physical switch which drains the lake near their camp. From the draining waters of alkalized lake rises a human artifact, a “broad circular shaft” (83) capped with a white dome and dripping sticky effluvia. Mesmerized by the unreal sight in contrast to the drab life at the archeological dig, the ragtag crew speed off by foot toward the towering phallic monolith, which they scale, frolic upon, and ultimately descend into without casting a word of discovery or warning to anyone… no one at all.
Descending into the depths of the planet, they assume they assume they are alone. They naively destroy the control circuits, spend some time gaping in awe at the human figures in the subterranean park and its extremely vast range, and translate the tale of twenty-five generation of humanity which found the planet, which was already in an artificial state due to a long gone alien race with fantastic technological prowess. Coming to some sense, they decide to ascend back to the crown of the wet ashen pillar in the middle of the drained lake, but at the elevator they are met by the Iron Brotherhood, a labor union of contract killers. It turns out that Senator Condé’s secret barrow of artifacts is, in fact, this very subterranean world and his insurance on the plot is guarded by his cronies. Larkspur feels himself instantly become immaterial, expendable.
In a bid to escape the predation of rifle shots and crossbow quarrels, Larkspur heads his subservient team into a graveyard’s crypt which is the sole entrance into Hellway. The Hellway is hundreds of kilometers long build by the Elitists and terminates at the north pole where they hope to exit and call for help. Originally built as a culturally inspired obstacle course for the prior human tenants’ rite of age, the numerous obstacles chosen for each player was chosen by the world’s computer system. Over the last few hundred years, however, the system and the world have deteriorated to the point of being even more deadly they it was before. Angered by the viciousness of the Elitists, some of Larkspur’s ragtag team damn the Elitists’ inhumanity and damn their own misfortune.
The ritualistic Hellway initiation for the coming of age isn’t as plainly trialing as the group first thought; rather, even the start of the maze is fraught with confusion and danger; the Hellway was “living poetry, an epic series of ‘objective correlatives’ for official Elitist virtues” (218), but even the most basic of mazes was laden with perplexing solutions, some which injured the trespassers and some which killed the errant. Belittled, Larkspur reflects, “This big phony stage set has reduced us to characters in a plya” (181). Allied lives are lost yet end-result expectations fizz with hope; meanwhile the Iron Brotherhood, in their own brutish and ham-fisted way, make their way toward the pole end of Hellway where a seemingly final aerial race to the finish to hosted between two intermixed teams of Larkspur’s ragtag team and the assassins.
Now leading with his wisdom and by example, confidence still grows among the dwindling crew; however, Larkspur is still plying his grand subterfuge in the equally as grand theatre of the absurd known as Hellway. He doubts his vaporous relationships with some members yet invests even his heart in a coital alliance. With the maze coming to an obvious terminus, his guise of Column importance cannot continue when official inspection nudges into the planet’s extraordinary matters. Larkspur may think his deception ends with the maze, but an even greater challenge awaits him on the planet’s surface—the real world, with problems of galactic importance.
Internally consistent, meticulously plotted, and burbling with subsurface Greek allegories, it’s too bad that most of the novel (onwards from page 130 to the final page 339) is steeped in a bitter brew of references to Greek mythology, a subject which I’ve never been interested in; therefore, any allegories which refer to these same allegories are utterly lost on me. I know the name—Daedalus, Icarus, Minotaur, etc.—but nothing more than the skim of their mythological fame; again, any deeper subcutaneous references to the mythologies fall in a vacuous area of my brain.
The numerous references began to irritate me, so I did something which I’ve never done before: I contacted the author. Prior to entry in the vast length of Hellway, everyone went through a mirror maze, then they went through three other trials (mazes), with a final maze at the end. Even with my limited knowledge of Greek mythology, I felt a tacit connection to something deeper in those same mythologies. So, rather than bone up on the wealth of Greek mythology, I opted to contact Cecil Brooks; I wrote, “The book is obviously influenced by Greek mythology, similar to Samuel R. Delany's Einstein Intersection (1967) …. could you enlighten me on the significance of the number of tests which Larkspur had to endure” (January 8, 2014). The reply thus read, “Perhaps if you finish reading our book, you’ll find that questions relevant to the text are answered in the text” (January 9, 2014).
So, the book, according to one of the co-authors, is self-evident. I’ve waited ten days to do this
review in order to throw more brain power at this spectral self-evidence; perhaps I thought about it too much, but the attempts to grasp at straws here doesn’t change my opinion of the book’s 3-star rating. That I can apply my thoughts to the analysis, I must spoil the party a bit by giving details about the mazes. In my attempt to apply as much ancient Greek relevance, I hit upon the classical Greek elements of fire, earth, water and air:
(1) The mirror maze: light, represented by fire, tricks the mind with illusions, reflections, and mirages—this misguidance could be consciously caused by the viewer based on emission theory, which postulated that the eye emitted light rather than accept it. As with the passage of light through the ether, passage through the mirrored maze takes time. The senses of patience and touch are required to navigate the subtle, deceptive and infuriating maze.
(2) The moth swarm: represented by fire and air, the moths seem to be an inane addition to the landscape of Hellway until the waft of a predatory pheromone; the harmless airy moths then attack with fire, paralyzing and dissolving the victim where they stand. As air acts as a vehicle for fire’s growth, so too do the moths offer a vehicle for progress, yet in a much more literal sense.
(3) The eel balloon: represented by air and water, eels are aqueous by inferred nature, they are dominate in their domain on Hellway as no other life form vies for supremacy of its waterways, yet the Hellway also has a mysterious side. During the eels’ the breeding cycle, a swarm is motivated to fill some of its brethren with hydrogen; thence they float to their spawning grounds, but while aloft they are out of their element and open to exploitation.
(4) The ivy-walled passages: represented by water and earth, the denizens of the rocky crawlspace are translucent globs of locomotion feeding on the verdant ivy which lines the passages; they affect what is needed while allowing non-vital elements, such as a person, safe passage through its doughy entity. The earth (of Newcount Two) and its stone are strong, unyielding to man’s passage yet fragile to time and kind to its smallest creatures, which Man is not. As time had lapsed in Hellway, certain passages decline in functionality and regress to the torments of fire, which casts a red light of warning.
(5) The aerial race: in the obvious median of air but bowing to the elements of earth and fire due to the trial’s purpose of propulsion; each team collects gold rings (earth) suspended by stony stalactites while being propelled by the constant power of fire on their backs. In the lithesome yet innocent ether of air, earth can be a firm foundation for confidence while fire can drive passion, coerce inhuman feats.
Perhaps I thought too much about it… but then again, I also found a number of homosexual innuendos (as with the white pillar in the lake). A playwright joins the navy? That’s a good start. If a book is self-evident, as the author suggests, any theme which I think reinforces itself is, in fact, a solid case for an overarching theme. Regardless of my insight, I doubt very much that either the elements of the innuendos were part of the intended spread.
Lastly, I must mention one thing: an unusual gem of a sex scene which had me guffaw aloud; it started nicely and ended in a mood-shattering bomb of hilarity:
I reached for her waist where she stood and drew her close, my lips pressed, in that position, against her pale, taut belly. I could feel a distant tom-tom heartbeat, hers or mine, and tasted lightly salted girlflesh. There was a brief moment of civil war--north or south? (247)
I like the invented word “girlflesh” but it feels a bit sexist, devaluing a woman to mere skin. If I remember one part of this book in twenty years’ time, it will be the little civil war prior to Larkspur’s own “little death”.
I can appreciate The Unwound Way for its prodding allegories on my mythologically-deaf mind. I can also appreciate the interconnectedness, finesse, and overall control of the novel. Yet, the recurring trials in Hellway feel like, as I mentioned to Mr. Brooks in my email, an “author's unbridled eagerness for expressing a wealth of imagination” (January 8, 2014), much akin to Jack L. Chalker’s Midnight at the Well of Souls (1977).
With 154 unread novels on my shelves, I don’t think the sequel The End of Fame (1994) will grace the walnut crannies. In the end, Larkspur is an interesting character with a strange history and in even stranger circumstances; unfortunately, it doesn’t make for a particularly illuminating read perhaps, again, because of my allergy to mythology. For those with a mythology fetish, however, I would highly recommend this!