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"Neverworld Wake" by Marisha Pessl
Read the absorbing new psychological suspense thriller from acclaimed New York Times bestselling author Marisha Pessl. Pre-order today
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On its most prosaic level, the book is a damn fine read. "Rollicking" is the hackney that most reviewers hail when they encounter writing like this. Science fiction stories too often sacrifice the human element in service of the idea. There is none of that dry detachment here.
Tim's characters have blood in their veins, fire in their bellies, and an unapologetic sense of presence. Even the bad guys (and thanks for drawing us some truly Bad Guys, Tim) feel real - to the point where I felt my Shadow waking up and saying, "Oh yeah, that's what it feels like down here!" The Good Guys were people I really cared about. Yes, there's a certain Manichean split going on with that, but the deep level of caring that Tim bestows on his White Hat characters makes that a trifling sin. And then there's this dense cloud of ambiguity that drifts around a vast set of "other" characters, which turns the moral palette of the book from a simple yin/yang into a deep, rich rainbow of motivation.
The action and the sets are unapologetically entertaining. Tim obviously loves to entertain, and he does it bloody well. The book's action premise is pulled straight out of Area 51, and anyone who has spent more than an hour Googling "those" sorts of web sites will immediately chuckle with recognition. Luckily, Tim has a fluid, personal voice and a remarkable sense of humour that come across just as well on the printed page as they do in person. He has a gift for observation and phrasing that carried me along inside the action without once wanting pop my head out for a reality check. That's good sci-fi!
OK, so where are we? Concept? Check. Characters? Check. Entertainment value? Check. Writing skill? Check. OK, those are the basics. Now it's time to drop down a level.
The door down to the next level of the book is labeled "Zeitgeist".
Among all of our anthropogenic miracles, we moderns have succeeded at one thing preternaturally well. We have actually manifested an ancient Chinese curse. We now live in times that are more interesting than most of us could have imagined a scant few decades ago - perhaps more interesting than some of us are even comfortable with any more.
That gut-level feeling of "Uh-oh" is the subterranean playground of Tim's book. And what a set of monkey-bars he has given us to swing from. Communes, climate change, chemtrails, Peak Oil, astral planes, nuclear accidents, the Military Industrial Complex, aliens in government, Roswell New Mexico, echoes of Hollow Earth theories: the whole post-modern hadron collision of imagination, ignorance, conspiracy, denial, real-politik, hope, love and despair is present and accounted for.
There may be a swathe of readers who don't resonate with this vision, whose fabric of reality is composed of sturdier, less exotic threads. But there is a huge and growing constituency to whom this book will offer a deep sense of homecoming. I know I recognized myself in it in some strange way. Even the ideas I had actively chosen to disbelieve had a sense of psychic familiarity. They seemed to whisper, "Yes, even though you have decided to reject us, we are still a part of you. We are part of the noosphere, and like it or not, we inform your life. After all, that's what information does."
Tim made me wonder how much influence such subliminal ideas have on people who would deny with their last breath that they believed in astral planes or alien abductions. After all, the Zeitgeist forms the walls of the cultural container which we fill with both our personal awareness and our collective consciousness.
Now we notice this stream of consciousness runneling down another steeper, darker flight of stairs. At the bottom it slithers though the crack under an unremarkable, unmarked door. This level is where the universal becomes personal. Behind that door is my own little apartment, the place where all Tim's ideas, characters and plot devices have come home into my own life. You are welcome to come in - I'll show you a bit of what I've done with the place. It's a little esoteric in here, so please mind your head.
The first thing you'll notice as you step through the door is that it's a bit untidy. OK, I'm being charitable. It's really an unholy mess in here. Most of the living room floor seems to be taken up by a growing heap of unrelated, unsorted ideas. As all the ideas in the stream from the book upstairs flow in under the front door, this is where they come to rest.
Before you get on my case about my housekeeping, I will point out two large bins sitting off to one side of the room. Each one sports a nice neat laser-printed label. One label reads "Ideas to Believe". The other reads "Ideas to Disbelieve". Together the bins are big enough to hold all the ideas I will come across in my lifetime.
A quick glance into the "Believe" bin reveals the typical ideas one would expect to find in such a place: "The universe is real", "My name is Paul", "Fire is hot", "The sky is blue", "2+2=4", "Spinach is good for you", "A stitch in time saves nine" - things like that.
The contents of the "Disbelieve" bin are a little more personal. They include ideas like "I can fly by flapping my arms", "Opera is good music" and "Tripe is food". Down at the bottom is a dusty old box marked "Religious Paraphernalia".
The heap on the floor is called "Neither" and includes ideas like "People are basically good", "People are basically evil", "Progress is good" and "You create your own reality."
Also mixed into the pile are all those uncomfortable ideas from Tim's novel: chemtrails, aliens in government, astral planes, energy healing, and a box containing something called "The Complete 9/11 Truth Belief-Set".
In the olden days before I read All of the Above I would carefully (religiously?) sort every idea that came into the place into one of those two bins - I believe this, I disbelieve that. Now however, I'm in the process of emptying out both those bins as fast as I can, tossing their contents onto that pile in the middle of the floor as I go.
In fact, trying to decide what to do with those ideas from the novel is how that pile of ideas - ideas that I neither believe nor disbelieve -- got its start. When I first read it I said something like, "Really nice book, but chemtrails and alien abductions? Give Me A Break." I don't need to go into all the personal macerations that led to the outcome, but I was apparently ready for a change. What Tim's book triggered in me was a sort of "avalanche of belief".
When the dust settled I had realized that belief and disbelief are two sides of the same coin. They both represent being attached to ideas. Belief represents clinging to the idea, disbelief requires rejecting the idea. Neither position has anything to do with truth. Holding fast to either one prevents me from exploring the personal value of any idea I attach it to (and yes, to me truth and value are only distantly related concepts.)
As an alternative I have chosen the position of non-belief, as represented by that growing pile of ideas in the middle of the floor. I find that if I need a particular idea at any moment, I can just pick it up out of the pile, without the emotional clinging or rejection that would be attached to the idea by the simple fact of it being in one of the bins.
As an aside, it turns out that a bunch of ancient Greeks rented this apartment before me. Their footprints still lead to a dusty old cupboard at the side of the room, labeled "Pyrrhonian Skepticism". It contains their 2500 year old version of this very same idea.
My Quixotic goal is to empty those belief bins completely and toss all their contents willy-nilly into the middle of the floor, where I can scuffle through them to pick and choose at will. And it's all Tim's fault.
Not bad for a first novel about a lady President and a little grey guy named Spud.
Not bad at all.
From a Canadian, that's about the highest praise there is.
I don't think this will be too much of a spoiler - The part of the book I think about most frequently during my ordinary life is when they encounter a room containing cases of snack foods and soft drinks: "You should not consume such things," [she said]. "The pharmaceuticals they contain are meant for the sleepers".
She then goes on to explain the meaning of "sleepers"....