The Illuminatus! Trilogy, Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson

DTP, 1975, 805 pages, C$21.95 tpb, ISBN 0-440-53981-1

I read Gravity’s Rainbow, once.

It sounds like a shameful admission, and that’s not far from the truth. Even years after the horrendous experience, I still remember the darn book’s page count (760) since I glanced at it every four pages or so. I never read something I understood less (except, maybe, for my calculus manuals… but I digress). There are a few other anecdotes relating to this book. (Like how I managed to read it at a traditional canadian maple-syrup party and (the day after) right in the middle of a family emergency.) But that’s another story for another time.

Suffice to say that I approached The Illuminatus! Trilogy with a similar state of mind: Was this going to be another postmodern 800-pages muddle? Would I be able to enjoy anything?

The answers were… surprising. I don’t usually like literary experiments, and still shudder at the memory of Gravity’s Rainbow. But The Illuminatus Trilogy is different.

For one thing, there is actually a story in here. It’s over-convoluted, way too long and stuffy like you wouldn’t believe, but it’s still a story. Never mind that most of the book doesn’t “happen” in chronological order, there’s a more-or-less defined beginning and end here. (The middle is all over the place).

That story, to put it simply, is the exposition of all the conspiracies that control society. From the Kennedy assassinations to the pyramid on the american $1 bill (which, speaking as a Canadian, still freaks me out) everything can be traced to one controlling group: The Illuminatus! Of course, the “truth” (if there is such a thing) is far less simple. If the Mafia part, over, under or a creation of the Illuminatus? Or is it the other way around? At one point in the novel, there are about three thousand groups that may or may not be in conflict and simultaneously part of the same organisation. If that’s confusing, don’t worry: It’s part of the enjoyment one gets from the trilogy.

To paraphrase one of the cover blurbs; you won’t know what’s happening, but you’ll have too much fun to notice. For fun is what’s included in The Illuminatus! Trilogy that’s missing from the other literary “stuff”. Whether you’re looking for gratuitous sex scenes (there are many, but -unfortunately!- less of them as the book advances), “cameos” by celebrities (Adolph Hitler, H.P. Lovecraft and Buckminster Fuller, to name a few), dramatic ironies (heh-heh-heh) or plain jokes (My favourite: “He worked with Smith-1, Smith-2 and Smith-3, three identical siamese triplets. Their father was a mathematician, so he indexed rather than named them.”)

Never mind that everything is outright incoherent fantasy. Forget that the book would have been immensely clearer with blank lines between sections. Pass over the 70-some pages of appendices. Drive the insane pseudo-erudite details out of your mind… This is fun stuff, for mature reader. “Mature” here being ability to digest twenty-odd plots occurring simultaneously at different points in time…

Unavoidable flaws are evident: There is a very “early seventies” feel to the trilogy, not surprising given the copyright date. Also, I felt that the ending is a bit drawn-out… but a re-reading might correct this impression.

Nevertheless, high conditional marks for The Illuminatus! Trilogy. If only for the explanation of why the Pentagon is built that way… Just don’t forget: They might be controlling you, right now!

Virtual Destruction, Kevin J. Anderson and Doug Beason

Ace, 1996, 327 pages, C$7.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-441-00308-7

There are times where I really wish for honesty in advertising. Or at least in cover blurbs. Even though Virtual Destruction isn’t as bad as some horrendously misleading cover copy I’ve seen, it still angers me to see bad labelling like this-

but perhaps the only problem is in my own mind. You see, no one will contest the affirmation that Virtual Destruction is Science-Fiction. To wit:

At the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, scientists (ie: computer nerds) are putting the last touches on a revolutionary technology: Virtual Reality. But as the date of an important demonstration approaches, the project leader is found in the VR room, dead. Is it a murder, or not? And who did it?

Much like the likeable Walter Jon Williams thriller Days of Atonement, Virtual Destruction uses a near-future locale as background to a “murder mystery”. But whereas Days of Atonement had a resolution that hinged specifically on science-fiction, Virtual Destruction mostly uses VR as a prop… the real guts of the novel are elsewhere.

There are other problems too. While Days of Atonement was a solid thriller that stood on its own from beginning to end, I got the impression that Virtual Destruction was nothing more than the start of the “Craig Kreident, High-Tech FBI Agent” series. While Kreident is an enormously pleasant protagonist, he’s not as well developed as his Days of Atonement counterpart. This is probably intentional, since series hero can’t have all the stuffing knocked out of them in volume one, hmm?

I will be forthright in saying that I do not enjoy reading about retarded (or even “dim”) characters, of which there are two in Virtual Destruction and whose plight is milked for maximum pathos. But that’s just me.

In the end, Virtual Destruction might be better suited to another category: “Best Sellers”. Like it or not, I interpret Virtual Destruction as an attempt from Anderson and Beason to write accessible, wide-span yarns like Crichton, Cussler and the like.

It’s a successful attempt, mostly. As said before, the character of Agent Kreident is sufficiently sympathetic to engage the reader. The prose style is fast and readable. The SF trappings are meticulously described, and there’s an impression of authenticity from the novel.

The resolution, for reasons that will remain a spoiler, is a letdown on several fronts. Some plot threads are dropped without adequate resolution. I liked the fact that one potential flaw was turned into a virtue by one plot resolution. On the other hand, a certain scene intended to be powerful came up as flat because… get this… virtual means not real!

The biggest flaw of this novel is that it’s surprisingly fluffy. Light, escapist, bestselling entertainment. That’s not a bad thing per se… if you’ve got the right expectations.

Still, it’s better than the usual Crichton.

[Jan’98: There is indeed going to be a “Craig Kreident” series of Techno-Thrillers. I intend to read’em as soon as they come out at my local library.]

Otherness, David Brin

Bantam Spectra, 1994, 357 pages, C$7.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-553-29528-4

David Brin is one of my favourite writers, ever. His fiction is full of technological optimism, cautious but determined environmentalist, good old Campellian human chauvinism and rockin’ action. More than anything else, Brin reminds me of early Niven stories, where the galactic void was the limit, characters dared to go beyond it and ideas flowed freely. He may not write the most polished prose ever, but Brin never loses sight of the reason readers buy his books: To be entertained. For that reason alone, a single of Brin’s short stories is worth more to me than truckloads of stuffy self-conscious literary dreck. (Okay, so I’m hyperbolating again. Shoot me.)

The River of Time, his first short story collection, was probably the best single-author short story collection I’ve ever read, the only other contender being Greg Egan’s Axiomatic. So, it’s really unexcusable that I waited so much time to read Otherness, more than three years after it came out on the market.

The bad news is that it’s less overwhelmingly impressive as The River of Time. The good news is that it’s still a Brin anthology; fun and fascination available for all.

This isn’t your usual “bag’o’stories” collection: The book is divided in five thematic sections, from “Transitions” to “Otherness”. Included in the mix are story notes (unusually placed in the middle of the section) and short essays mostly concerned about the theme of “Otherness”.

What is that Otherness thing Brin seems to be so enthusiastic about? Well, it’s a bit like this: Only in the Western world today, do we have an obsession at proving that we are wrong: Youth questions authority, historian question traditional interpretation of history, children are expected to be better (ie: not do what their parents did wrong), people often using the expression “But I might be wrong”, outright glorification of other cultures, etc… This is socially unprecedented, and a good thing, says Brin in a much better way than I can. The essay in which this principle is first explained is hilarious and profoundly fascinating. Recommended reading.

The rest of the book is mostly entertaining. The only dull section is “Cosmos”, where literary tricks take the initiative, and the story suffers. “What continues, what fails…” has a fantastic premise but an overlong execution that still didn’t grab me, even the second time around.

A seemingly disproportionate amount of stories deal with motherhood (At least four of them), an unusual theme for a male author. A typically Campbellian “human-uber-alles” story, “The Warm Space” is also the weakest of the volume. I particularly enjoyed “Those Eyes” (a story) and “What to say to an UFO” (an essay) for the coldly rationalistic perspective of the UFO hysteria. “Detritus Affected” was very interesting up to the ending, which is absent.

Overall, a pleasant but not really spectacular anthology. The cover illustration by Donato is lovely, and the whole anthology can be read in a short amount of time. Not to be missed by any Brin fan.

Infectress, Tom Cool

Baen, 1997, 370 pages, C$7.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-671-87763-1

Briefly: I like techno-thrillers and I love Hard SF, so it’s not a surprise if I’ve found Infectress to be such a pleasant read. Fast-paced action, adequate characters, a strong grasp of the SF devices and clever little touches makes this one of the best first novels I’ve read lately.

Baen books has a tradition of publishing novels more concerned about plasma guns than deep philosophical insights. I happen to like good action/adventure SF, so I’m always curious about the latest Baen offerings. Whatever high literary standards SF aspires to, there’s not denying that the genre’s true genesis comes from the pulse-pounding pulp-ish plots. Infectress probably won’t convert anyone already sold out to the “fine literature” crowd, but is solid entertainment for those who crave a few explosions in their fiction. Thriller fans will feel right at home with this smart tale of terrorism, secret agents and high-tech police work.

Infectress focuses on the character of Arabella, more commonly known as “Infectress”, a high-tech terrorist with a long history of bloody violence. On the other side of the plot, Scott McMichaels: Brilliant AI designer, he’s just created META: “the world’s true artificial intelligence.” When Infectress needs a lot of help for a little bio-toy of hers, you can be darn sure the three (four?) main characters are going to meet somewhere.

The problem with techno-thrillers has always been that they’re SF books done wrong: The technology is seen as so unsettling than in most cases, it’s forgotten/destroyed/censored by the end of the book. So it’s a bit of relief to see Infectress as an SF book that finally does a techno-thriller right: The action is there along with the technical details, the plot-driven story, the competent Heinleinian characters and the pro-military attitude.

This last characteristic is natural, since author Tom Cool is, says the tantalizing blurb, “a serving U.S. naval officer.” It’s refreshing to see a novel where the government and military forces both know their stuff, and aren’t there for yet another X-Files-type coverup.

The back-cover blurb goes on to say that Cool is “patently the most gifted naval officer to write science fiction since Robert A. Heinlein”. While this may be very true from a strict tautological viewpoint, (How many naval officers write SF?) there are at least grounds for comparison: Cool acknowledges Heinlein (even citing The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, P.82) and has a no-nonsense, practical style that echoes of the Early Heinlein. This book was pure candy to me; once started, it was difficult to stop reading. This is one book that I regret borrowing at my library… I’d rather keep it in my collection…. right besides the books of that other Tom C….

[January 1998: Bought it. Still fun to browse through.]

To be sure, this isn’t a perfect book. Some parts don’t quite mesh with the others (a philosophical discussion between two AI fragments is interesting, but a bit out-of-place.) and some plot points are predictable to the veteran espionage/thriller enthusiast. The villains were slightly over-the-top, but that’s part of the fun. I’m still not sure about Stephen Hickman’s cover illustration: It’s pretty, but…?

[January 1998: The cover ended up 4th in my “Best Cover Poll’97”…]

Despite all its good intentions, Infectress doesn’t have the extra “oomph” to propel it from simple action thriller to award-winning material. But the fact that it’s that close that’s heartening: The only thing more impressive than Infectress is its author. Tom Cool shows that he’s computer-literate, aware of the SF genre rules and able to write the kind of uncomplicated prose that a wide range of readers appreciate. It remains to be seen whether his next efforts will be as successful, but I’ll be reading whatever he wishes to write next with rapt attention. To quote the back cover blurb again: Commander Cool, we salute you!