Science Fiction Though the Decades

Monday, February 17, 2014

1981: Radix (Attanasio, A. A.)

Impenetrable, undecipherable (1/5)

Purely based on the book’s well regarded status on Amazon and Goodreads, rather than a friend’s recommendation, I bought Radix some time ago. It has haunted my shelves for a good two years being ignored next to other novels I have been trepidant to start, Piers Anthony’s Macroscope (1969) and Parke Godwin’s Limbo Search (1995) among them. So, without any preconception of the plot or prose, I dived into the book… and sank up to my chin in a chaotic, putrid swamp of world-building and compound adjectives.

Inside page synopsis:
“At the end of the twentieth century, the Earth entered the Line, a beam of radiant energy from a distant black hole. In the aura of this strange power, the Earth was altered forever. Humanity distorted into a variety of forms. Reality as we know it collapsed, timeless beings incarnated themselves in human flesh, endowing it with unimaginable power.

Into this twilight age a youth was born who was destined to transform the future of mankind. At first a frightened, rebellious teenager, he was forged into a brutal warrior in a harrowing rite of passage. A wanderer for a time among a tribe of outcasts, he began to discover his humanity. At least, he was forced to turn against those who made him to unleash the godlike powers he held.”


Dear God, where do I begin?

This is an excellent synopsis which I am unable to expand upon because, frankly, I didn’t understand a damn thing beyond page 71. I finished the book to give it an honest rating, but the reading was protracted by my inability to absorb nonsense which flowed from page to page, chapter to chapter until the very end. I could only stomach a few pages at a time, not because the prose was too rich, but because, as mentioned above, the world-building was too dense, too obscure and the writing style was… how does one put it… distracting, off-putting, perhaps bordering on indecent to the English language?

To begin with, the first section of the book, entitled “Distorts" from pages 1-122, had an unsavory yet alluring introduction to the lengthy book: a fat, unappealing man-child wreaks destruction of local gangs and local businessmen alike while he ardently tries to disown his mother, forget his father, and plant his man-seed when he feels the need. However, the section is marked by a number is inconsistencies and flip-flopping: 

(a) Sumner, first, remembers “his first journey outside McClure” (27) but later reminds himself that he “had never been outside of McClure (29); 

(b) Sumner’s scansule is inoperative because the battery was professionally taken out (21) so he drops it to the floor where the tube explodes (22) yet later he uses the scansule “for hours on end” (59) and even later comes home to see “the clear space where the scansule had shattered” (119);

(c) Nafandi leaves the Rigalu Flats at Sumner’s command (102) yet later returns on a whim (104). 

The inconsistencies, be they blatant and intentional or a sign of the author’s rush to fill the pages with world-building vocabulary, feel awkward. Beyond awkward, miles away actually, lies the author’s reoccurring unreadable writing, which is strewn with artistically inclined compound adjectives or nouns and idiosyncratic compound nouns, a similar sensation to walking on Legos spread across the tile of an endless, unlit hallway; for example, these sentences mean absolutely nothing to me: “Drift was vaguely alive, its whale-small eyes blood-burned” and “he stumble-stepped on the ice-peddled shale” (361). By then, I just wanted the entire Attanasio experience to be over with!

Only by page 258 did I realize that Attanasio was using the garbage heap of compound adjectives as a crutch to describe his pretentious fictional world, like he had to create new words for posterity’s sake or because English isn’t an expressive enough language (I’m not a barber, but I know when I get a bad haircut = I’m not a writer, but I know when get a bad book):

The man's hands on his shoulders hummed with spring-thundering, and the dark in the blue of his eyes was shimmering with something like father-love. "But look!" the breeder insisted, pointing to where the wart-knobbed, mud-green hulk of the razorjaw was running to shore. Its horn-browed eyes looked fireblind, and the long thrust of its maw glistened with many pink-skinned teeth. (258-259)

This trend continues:

That instant someone in the group twanged a box-harp, and the wiry, tremulous note pierced him. The feather-crowned yawp took the bowl from his hands, and he saw her refill it with oddly shaped blood-red leave. (322)

And doesn’t let up any time soon:

The ice and snow around the glades were heat-carved and wind-shaped into pale blue pavilions. A line of ice-glens moved up the snow-fields toward the summit, and Sumner climbed through them as though he were moving from dream to dream. (338)

The ort-lord gestured circularly, and a curve of the wall fanned into a hypnotically clear mirror. Sumner's voor-burns were gone. A sun-bossed face stared back at him, wide and flat. He was wearing a blue, loose-fitting garment, and his hair had been cut back around his ears, close to the square of his head. (370)

He glimpsed a mirror-eyed fox; then the pinecove clapped into an exploding radiance, and a long-tailed scream sirened louder than hearing. (410)

Followed by a glut of compound adjectives on page 413:

Spikes of energy cut across the sky, and above the tide of slavering beasts, raels came into view. A thousand of them circled in from the nearby hills, invisible in the darkness, lizard-frilled, tendriled and bulb-glistening in the sporadic blastlight.

The onslaught of orts staggered and broke up beneath the lash of poison-darts the raels flailed beneath them. A brute cry whined through the fury of the sky-echoes, and their distance from the orts widened.

The rock-mantled hill appeared ahead. Vapor-scabbed fire wrung the horizon to crazed colors beyond it. Rubeus was closing in. The ground flinched, and they had to stop running to stay on their feet. Then a bellowing corona blasted seeing and flung them to the ground.

The air sizzled. Even with their faces in the ripped earth, their vision was a dazed, flame-shaken halo. Colors winced apart, and with screaming slowness, sight returned.

They were sprawled at the foot of the hill. Dazzling flame-echoes crackled above them, lighting the blown-away forest with the brilliance of the sun. The raels had vanished. Several translucent corpses burned with crawling worm-fires in the field, then disappeared beneath the renewed advance of the orts.

The above moments were irksome but not debilitating; however, there were times when I cringed in utter pain, screamed out in agony, wished that I had never picked up this dreaded novel (but for an honest rating, I simply had to finish it). These times were situated in the novel where the author’s world-building vocabulary was at its densest, so dense, in my opinion, that rereading appendix for clarification would have tripled or quadrupled the time it read to understand the passage:

Thousands of darktime voors had channeled the psynergy of their lives through Dai Bodatta, feeling that they were dying into the ecstasy of Unchala. The joy had been real, but the crossing had been only a passage to a memory of Unchala. The voors' psynergy had really dispersed into the planet's kha where the acausal laws of Iz would return them to earth as the memories of future voors … Five thousand years from now, after the Iz-wind had long passed, voors would be remembered as sorcerers, witches, elves. The human form was new to them. Only now, after thirty thousand years dormant in the howlie collective unconscious, were voors humanwise enough to use the return of the Iz-wind to create godminds. If the brood created enough godminds, their psynergy would be strong enough to unify. As One Mind, they could disengage from the earthdreaming completely and flux once more with the Iz-wind that streamed through collapsed stars from cosmos to cosmos. Only a few centuries remained before Iz was too far to reach. (362-363)

Clueless reader, indecipherable verbiage or just words thrown on a page as meaningless as this review (duly noted, thank you)? The climax of tolerance was reached on page 394 after pages of frustration. I so, so wanted to give up on the remaining pages but stuck through the thick, thicker and the thickest to reach the muddied conclusion, the rank epilogue and the murky final sentence: “Everything is best” (446).


The most enlightening thing about the novel was the amount of use my dictionary got. My Sony Reader’s New Oxford American Dictionary catalogued my vocabulary entries and, from this, I learned and unlearned a slew of useless, archaic or technical words, but also heap of useful words;  among my favorites: irenic, caliginous, coriaceous, banausic, kenspeckle, risible, tussock, splanchnic, diaphanous, squamous, theanthropic, colubrine, and fuscous.

There’s a large following of this book for some reason, though any understanding of this reason is impenetrable to me. As philosophy is often referred to as masturbation with words, I would extend this metaphor to Radix… fascinating for the author and voyeurs but a nuisance to passers-by, like myself.


  1. Thankfully there are three more in the Radix Tetrad! ;) tehe.

  2. I'd rather perform haruspicy or anthropomancy with my bare hands than pick up another Attanasio novel. How can people read this drivel... because it sounds intelligent? Have you read it?