Bantam Spectra, 1995, 447 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-553-57329-2
Gentry Lee is, by all accounts, a formidable man. JPL engineer, father of seven, renowned public speaker, he is best-known in the science-fiction field for his four collaborations with Arthur C. Clarke: Cradle and the Rama trilogy that followed on Clarke’s classic Rendez-vous with Rama.
But perhaps is it more accurate to says that Lee is infamous in the SF community for his collaborations with Clarke. Critics have not been very kind to any of those books. Clarke’s succinct, no-nonsense, steely-agnostic prose was transformed into a sprawling mess of mystical experiences, unlikable characters in overwritten adventures that had few, if any, of the originals’ charm. Cradle didn’t have to labour under the heavy burden of any classic predecessor, but even then few readers liked it. Now here comes Bright Messengers, Lee’s first solo novel which also doubles as a prequel to the Rama trilogy. (aaargh!)
Lee’s track record in other fields suggest that he’s able to do many things exceedingly well. But writing novels won’t one of those things. Let us see why.
Part of it has to do with the pedestrian nature of Lee’s imagined future. The year is 2141, but there are no details (save for a few colonies on Mars and the usual economic catastrophe) to indicate that this is any different from, oh, 2010. Granted, Lee ripped off his setting from the “Rama” trilogy (and that’s another problem right there), but even that doesn’t excuse much when his characters all act like refugees from the mid-nineteen nineties. All except for Sister Beatrice, a spectacularly grating model of perfection whose unshakable faith is held up as an example for all. Or something like that; it’s difficult to care for sainthood incarnate.
But onward, for despite a particularly boring first hundred pages, things soon pick up once our characters fly off to Mars. There is a deliciously decadent atmosphere of decay in the “Valhalla” section, as the red planet’s colonization effort is failing. Thanks to a bad economy, governments and corporations alike have turned their back on Mars and are in the process of sending everyone home. Everything is falling to pieces, and so (among other things), a colony has to make a Faustian bargain with a dangerous engineering genius to survive. This is perhaps the only section of the book worth reading, as the tension slowly cranks up.
Eventually, mysterious quasi-mystical appearances lead our character to an alien base, which whisks off our merry bunch of characters away in alien lala land. A psychopath hops along for the ride. The book gets worse from that point on. People who complained about the strange guilty mixture of sex and piety in the Rama trilogy won’t feel let-down by the even wackier mix in Bright Messengers. The psychopath (whose short stature and Arab origins are often highlighted) fulfils his obvious role in the narrative. It results in a gruesome death and an eyebrow-raising character reversal. What happens to poor pretty perfect Sister Beatrice is straight out of the Catholic “Greatest Martyrs” play book.
Lee is an avowed theist, but his dumb use of pseudo-religious elements does a disservice to all believers. When, late in the book, something spectacular happens in an environment built and controlled by mysterious alien intelligence, stupid sister Beatrice goes on to exult at the visible proof of God’s intervention. When her sceptical companion replies with a variation of Clarke’s third law, she retreats into pouting and wishing for another companion. If someone can explain how an editor can let an author self-defeat himself in his own novel, I’d be most grateful. (Unless the editor was being deliberately unhelpful; I can understand that after reading the book.)
(Shuffling through the novel to re-read that passage, I see that I forgot to highlight the dull and lengthy Hiroshima-and-Nazis virtual reality section, but that’s okay: I ended up browsing them anyway and then found out that they had absolutely no impact on the rest of the novel. Yes, it’s a book like that.)
This book barely has any plotting (Ooh, psychopath! Booga-booga!), nor anything resembling sympathetic characters. Aside from brief moments in the Martian section, it oscillates between stupidity and boredom. At least the book solves one mystery; the question of who wrote most of the Rama trilogy: Obviously, the quality of Bright Messengers speaks for itself. And, presumably, so will Double Full Moon Night, the announced conclusion of this unfortunate piece of fiction.
[June 2004: Wow, Double Full Load of Nonsense indeed speaks for itself. The heroes are still gratuitously marooned on one, then another alien environment. People reproduce (giving rise to even more twisted psychosexual dynamics), bicker, die horribly, etc. It’s not much of a Science-fiction novel, though. It really doesn’t help that it’s so dull and clunky, filled with character not worth caring about and long philosophical speeches that could be demolished by any high-school student. If you haven’t read the first book, don’t worry: it’s summarized in a pithy introduction that contains such wince-inducing phrases as “Leaving [protagonist] to die in his cave prison, [antagonist] repeatedly raped and humiliated [character] in many additional ways.” Plot-wise, I hope you weren’t expecting any developments nor answers, because there aren’t any: Even when the insufferable beatified Beatrice makes a return appearance as a helpful ghost, she remains coy about their situation and start spouting off nonsense such as “It is never necessary for us to have all our questions answered. [P.226] and later “For reasons that you would never be able to comprehend, I cannot give you any more specifics.” [P.258] But even these get-out-of-jail cards can’t hide the fact that Gentry Lee is a poser who’s making this stuff up as he goes along, with an appalling disregard for his readers that borders on a prolonged insult. The last section tries to tie the two books back to the Rama trilogy, which would be interesting if we actually cared about even a tiny sliver of those five books. ]