- Paperback: 256 pages
- Publisher: Fairwood Press, Inc (September 1, 2009)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0982073038
- ISBN-13: 978-0982073032
- Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.6 x 8.5 inches
- Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 7 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #6,924,833 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Harbinger Paperback – September 1, 2009
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The Amazon Book Review
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From Publishers Weekly
Skillingstead's notable talent with short stories doesn't quite extend to this often disjointed debut. Disaffected teen Ellis Herrick has psychic visions of the future and a mystical bond with the girl he loves. After surviving a terrible accident, Ellis discovers superhuman healing abilities as well. An eccentric billionaire kidnaps the traumatized boy and requires him to serve as a one-man body parts factory for decades. Having lost everyone he cares about, Ellis allows the billionaire's great-grandson to continue using him in this obscene fashion until, finding a new love among colonists on a generation ship, he revolts with tragic consequences. At his best, Skillingstead gives off strong vibes of Philip K. Dick and Kurt Vonnegut, but readers will struggle to gain any kind of emotional connection to his depressed immortal protagonist. (Oct.)
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Ellis Herrick awakes one night to find himself made immortal by some incomprehensible, alien power. That launches him on a path of star-crossed love with still-mortal Nichole, who haunts him through centuries of life. He spends quite a bit of his time as an organ bank for some very wealthy, powerful men, which is why he ends up on a generation ship headed for the unknown. Meanwhile, the creatures who bestowed immortality have changed the way humanity looks at reality, such that many now consider Ellis the first sign of a new evolution. Tired of being an organ donor and of being either adored or loathed as an evolutionary novelty, Ellis creates a virus to help him escape the ship's command level, but that goes horribly wrong. Eventually, it turns out that space, time, and reality are malleable. The relentless focus on Ellis' search for self-understanding makes the whole mess interesting, and the way Skillingstead maximizes his story's emotional impact is very impressive. --Booklist
When he was a child, Ellis lost his mother and older brother in a car accident. Another car crash in adolescence endows him with miraculous powers that include apparent immortality and the ability to regrow body parts. Eventually, Ellis learns that he is a Harbinger, and his spiritual journey lasts for centuries as he shifts through time and space, discovering the outer world and his inner self. VERDICT Skillingstead (Are You There and Other Stories) re-creates the atmosphere of old-style Vonnegut and the ingenuity of Philip K. Dick in a tale that holds its greatest appeal for readers who enjoy contemplating eternal truths in fictional form. --Library Journal
When Jack Skillingstead turns to the novel in Harbinger, he mingles elements of the genres we tend to call SF and mainstream so fluently it's clear they're all parts of a single language: one that subverts cliche and probes under the surface to find both humanity and "singularity" in everything from family traumas to a far future of artificial reality and long-distance space travel....Some SF writers give their futures (both earthly and off-planet) a sense of life as we live it, with its moments of confusion, tedium, effort that's more gradual and tentative than heroic or desperate, and the whole spectrum of human frailties. In Harbinger, Skillingsstead takes his reluctantly remarkable protagonist from Earth to space, from awkward youth in the past to survival in a post-human yet unidealized future, until the entire concept of time becomes meaningless. Could everything be simultaneous? Once we have lived long enough with Ellis Herrick, even that freaky concept starts to make sense. --Locus
While Jack Skillingstead has created quite a stir with his well-received short fiction, his novel writing talents have never been on display before (to this reviewer's knowledge, at least). Many authors well known for short stories don't make the transition to novel form well, either never putting out a solid novel, or taking a few before they hit their stride. With that in mind, I entered Skillingstead's new novel Harbinger, out in a month or two from Fairwood Press. To say that my initial fears were a waste of worry is a massive understatement. Harbinger runs along at a solid pace, mixing action with hints of romance, philosophy, cultural movements, and much about life, family, and love. Skillingstead seems to effortlessly mix his action filled, quick moving plot with deep questions that leave a lot of thinking to be done after the book is set down. While this novel contains far more than its slight size indicates, it is first and foremost a story of living life and finding love, no matter the struggles and despite all of the mistakes you make. Ellis' tale is at times depressing, poignant, and beautiful. Skillingstead has created an incredible novel, full of power, containing fully-fleshed settings, difficult questions, and characters that you care for. Harbinger is a wonderful book, and I hope that Skillingstead returns to the novel form soon. --Luke Reviews
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Skillingstead makes immortality awfully unpleasant as poor Ellis goes on into the future with only the ghost of his dead beloved to keep him company. Until he figures out how to move back and forth in time to create, as he and Nichole put it, their own happy ending walking between and through all the worlds. The tale is definitely worth your time and the price is right---despite too many annoying typos. I'm looking forward to his next novel.
Maybe excellent literature in the SF genre is still relatively rare? According to one of the accolades on the back cover of Harbinger: "In a day when too many SF novels are all about sizzle, with no steak underneath, Harbinger is that rarest of commodities - a character-based novel... daring to flirt with an edge of spirituality...."
It was this statement above all, that sold me on the book, before I bought it - and boy! I wasn't disappointed! I love the way Skillingstead does indeed "flirt with spirituality". He makes it very enticing - The main character, Ellis is a totally engaging, multi-dimensional, fully believable and lovable character. As he develops from moody innocent teenager to cynical, weary adult, his moments of trying to "believe" - in the concept called "Evolution Consciousness" - (essentially coming to terms with his immortality) - feel very good and emotionally satisfying. Skillingstead successfully combines the pursuit of "stone cold rationalism" with more than a healthy dose of mysticism.
Science fiction may seem atheist, rational, non-spiritual, even gloomy, at times, but the whole process of exploring the future, dreaming up new futuristic technology, machines, aliens, etc - is spiritual in itself... It is the process of exploring realms outside of the human. Which is what religions and spiritual practices do too.
Harbinger is an amazing story, full of adventure, suspense and thrilling action, (as well as a satisfying amount of romance and sensuality), that takes us way out into the far reaches of outer space and hundreds of years into the future. I enjoyed the detailed descriptions of the futuristic technologies, gadgets, planets, aliens and ideas. The writing is also full of down-to-earth wit, humor and raw emotion too, which keeps everything grounded in a strong sense of reality, even through mind-blowing time shifts, temporal time warps, parallel realities and anomalies... You end up reeling and clinging on to reality with your bare knuckles, just as Ellis does (for the most part).
Ultimately, it's a journey of discovery - of what Ellis is, what has happened to him - the mystery of his immortality, and why certain themes have appeared over and over again in his many life times. There is a strong sense of hope throughout the journey - hope that it is all worth it, and that life - his life - human life - does ultimately have purpose and meaning, despite the inevitable grief, suffering and hardship that we cannot avoid.
Skillingstead masterfully writes, at the end of Harbinger, "The collective unconscious of the human race senses its ultimate demise and attempts to rescue itself by producing, in as many individuals as possible, a higher consciousness that will transcend the human." This is a wonderful, philosophical statement, which sums up why we, as humans pursue faith, belief systems, religion or spirituality - in order to cope with grief, suffering and hardship .
Spirituality, psychology and philosophy are subjects that I have delved into a lot, with the purpose of studying the human psyche, and our need for spiritualism. Writing books of any kind, but especially SF, is one way to achieve that - to "transcend the human".
As humans, we struggle with this rationalism / mysticism paradox - We see our need for spiritualism as just that - a human need. Many of us look at ourselves being spiritual and laugh, thinking it's daft, or childish, or "bullshit". But, then, that part of us that doesn't come from the conscious chattering mind - our subconscious, or our soul, (or whatever you want to call it) - stands back with a calm demeanor and smiles knowingly - and says "It's OK to be skeptical. But it's all true really - you are just too small and puny to understand."
Even the most rational of us like to toy with the thought that there might be a higher consciousness out there - (always outside ourselves) that is larger than us - more complicated than us - that is far too vast and rich and mind-blowing for us to ever really grasp.
The more intelligent and inquiring we are, the more frustrating it is that we can't grasp this "higher consciousness", or this spirituality - we can't touch it - we can't control it, and god knows we all want to be in control! (Or maybe the more masculine side of us wants to be in control - whether we're male or female). Supposedly, the feminine side of our nature (in both males and females) is better at just "letting go" or bending to life's pain, rather than being so rigid.
And yet, even as intelligent as we are, part of us finds spirituality comforting - the idea that we can just give in, and have faith - like a child trusting its mother or father... We can ultimately stop struggling to understand, we can even stop struggling to survive - because we can rest back on faith - that "it will all be all right if we just let go."
Bereavement and loss throws everything into question, and this is what makes our brains produce spiritual thought processes - as a survival instinct. We make a shift in our thought processes and cling to spirituality, whether it comes to us naturally or not - as a way of coping with and living with the harsh reality of death. We discover that if we don't bend to life's pain, and we just remain rigidly rational, we inevitably snap, and either go mad or die.
This, for me, is what makes Harbinger and the main character Ellis so compelling - the whole theme of grief, bereavement and dying. And, imagining having to cope with grief over and over again, as an immortal being. Skillingstead makes immortality totally believable and real and tangible - and tragic. I loved how the book explores the whole idea of immortality - through Ellis - pushing it's implications to the limits - exploring what it might really be like, and how we as humans would cope (or not cope).
Ultimately - Skillingstead does not draw any conclusions (which is perfect) - He leaves us with the important philosophical questions - Is immortality better than death? Is death a final oblivion? Is there something else "out there"? Do we really want there to be something else? Is it healthier to cling to life or let go and embrace death? Are our souls worthy of transcending our mere human, finite bodies? Who gets to decide who is worthy to transcend beyond death / beyond the human? And, if we do transcend death or human limitations, is it a gift, or a punishment? A blessing or a curse?
The author tries to have it both ways: - rational and mystical...And I think it's possible to do so. It's a balance. Which is a nice thing - Like yin and yang, masculine and feminine, push and pull. Two opposing forces, two opposing view points. Paradoxically co-existing.
Harbinger follows Ellis Herrick, a teenager who has lost his mother and brother and who has a crush on his neighbor Nichole. But when a serious car crash dismembers him and puts him in the hospital, he discovers that he has an astonishing power: the ability to regrow any part of his body. Ellis, however, isn't the one most interested in this turn of events. Langley Ulin sees Ellis as the fountain of youth and wants to use the young man to keep himself alive forever. What follows is a decades long tale of Ellis' life on Earth, in space, and across the stars, a life filled with love, vengeance, pain, and wonder.
As a love story, Harbinger functions in a most unusual manner. The relationship between Nichole and Ellis is rocky and complicated, not just because of Ellis' rather immature and confused actions, but also because of the fact that he doesn't age. The way Ellis deals with this problem differs from other novels of this kind: he moves around throughout life, never fixed to a position. The somewhat cosmopolitan (or rhizomatic, if you want to get theoretical) nature of Ellis' character is something to take note of as you read, because the conclusion of the novel directly comments upon this issue.
Interesting too is how Ellis goes through life. Due to his condition, he is sought after by all manner of curious people, from those who want to use him as a medical experiment to those who are interested in telling his story, and so on. But Ellis, as previously mentioned, never stays fixed to any of these positions, sometimes on purpose, and other times due to various catalysts in his life (death is a prominent one). It might be difficult to understand at first, because he makes a lot of decisions that would seem stupid, but when put in the perspective of one being immortal and intentionally and unintentionally stuck in a position of independence by his "freak" nature, his life starts to make sense. There is a veritable gold mine of interesting analyses to be made about Ellis and the world that Skillingstead has set out to design here (perhaps someone will take on that task one day).
Ellis is not hopeless, however. His character progresses in unusual ways, but he also acts as a particularly effective mirror for looking at ourselves. You could argue that Ellis lives many lives, and that each one is a reflection of our mortality. Like Ellis, we only get a handful of shots to pursue our greatest passions, and while Ellis certainly has more opportunities than most of us, he still suffers from his failures, because nothing is forever. Perhaps, in a way, by looking at Ellis, we can begin to understand why we are mortal in the first place, because to live through all that Ellis does would seem like a nightmare. Maybe I'm reaching, but it is something worth thinking about.
Skillingstead has absolutely hit the nail on the head with Harbinger. While not a perfect novel, the very fact that Skillingstead has taken on such a daunting narrative task and succeeded in creating an engaging novel is worth noting. Harbinger never drags and each jump forward feels like a natural progression in terms of the narrative itself, which produces a kind of episodic, connected storyline leading to an uncertain conclusion. Perhaps Harbinger's greatest fault is that uncertainty; the conclusion leaves quite a lot of questions and does boggle the mind, which I found particularly problematic considering the clarity of everything preceding it--we understand everything from the motivations of the characters, the world built around them, and so on up until the end. I suspect that some aspect of this uncertainty was intentional, maybe as a way of trying to express the natural confusion one has when exposed to the cultures of people outside of one's generation (think of your great-grandparents trying to grasp the rapid-pace world of the Internet). Still, there's much to love about Harbinger, and I would recommend it for readers and fans of lighter flavors of science fiction.