21 December 2007

Explores some heavy-duty ideas, but gets pretty confusing along the way

Ian Watson
St. Martins, 1987

is the third Ian Watson that I've read, the first two being The Embedding and Miracle Visitors, and it shares some features with his other works. On the one hand, Watson is a brilliant thinker whose novels are filled to the brim with profound questions about the nature of the self and the nature of reality. On the other, because Watson's novels are about profound topics which don't lend themselves to easy envisioning, they tend to become confusing and murky. In this, Watson seems very much like Philip K. Dick.

This book features a society in which the fear of death has been all but completely uprooted. Violent deaths, murder, warfare, etc. have all disappeared and been replaced with a peaceful system of "good deaths" in which the sick and elderly are brought into Houses of Death and guided to their ultimate fate. Religion, with its insistence on survival of death, has been suppressed, as have those art forms that are rooted in death anxiety (i.e., all quality poetry, film, art, etc.).

At the novel's opening, protagonist and death guide Jim Todhunter arrives by monorail at Egremont, one of the cities in this society. Almost immediately he witnesses the unthinkable assassination of the community's resident saint, Norman Harper, by one of the residents of the local House of Death. Though he is tasked with guiding the assassin to a good death, he instead becomes caught up in the assassin's belief that so-called "good deaths" allow strange, red, bat-like creatures from another dimension to steal the souls.

The novel explores this premise, that different forms of death lead to different sorts of afterlives, as the two main characters explore near-death experiences, astral travel, and attempts to cage death itself. While these explorations themselves are quite fascinating, they lead the novel into ever-widening circles of weirdness where the characters, and reality itself, are not quite what they seem.

(This review was originally written on October 16, 2007.)

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