My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Peter Kazmaier should be on everyone’s list of ‘polymaths to watch out for,’ but as yet, his literary fame hasn’t outstripped his scientific fame. Maybe it never will, since he has taken some risks with his literature that he might not take if he were putting bread on the table with it. His daring is much to the advantage of the adventurous reader, but I’m glad he has those 100 U.S. patents (q.g.) for Xerox-related technologies to back him up (q.g. is the Latin abbreviation ‘quo gugula,’ meaning ‘google that’).
The story begins with an isolated university, situated on an island, suddenly being translocated to a mysterious new place or dimension. The atmosphere is very B-movie at first, the kind of sci-fi setup that was adored in Rocky Horror Picture Show – a collection of earnest, heterosexual Anglo-Saxons, seemingly American, thrust together into a future-tech mystery. You can sense the neatness of the haircuts even though they’re never described. That the only discernible black student turns out to be Nigerian seems anomalous until one realizes the author is a prof at a regional Canadian university. Perhaps the University of Halcyon, as presented here, is secretly Canadian, as so many Canadian things are – or perhaps, even at the beginning, it symbolizes a cultural experiment in uniformity, a theme that grows as the book goes on.
As young Dave, the hardy student who is the main hero of the book, goes out on expedition to explore the strange para-Earth the University has dropped into, he meets various natural hazards. Increasingly, though, he and his friends also run into a home-made hazard. Free of the surrounding society and left on their own to experiment socially, the administrators of Halcyon U soon promote their own more ambitious social plans, which are much along the lines of an atheist kibbutz. Dave, as a moderate agnostic, and his friend Al, as a moderate Christian, are increasingly excluded from social approval. They spend as much of their time as possible on exploration missions where they can combat natural hazards and leave the social ones behind. Nonetheless, the social hazards catch up to them. (And truthfully – to those in the know, what ogre could be more dreadful than a university administrator gone over to the dark side?) Finally natural and social hazards combine in a most unexpected way.
The great strength of this book is that as it goes along, its perspective becomes ever more enlarged. Any concern that the social questions it asks are going to involve cardboard characters in cardboard scenes is rapidly blown away. There is one surprise after another, and each one gives the book more depth. Ultimately one realizes that one is reading a sophisticated and well-wrought tale, and that the various nods it makes to C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and so on are probably deliberate, and, in any case, welcome. Before long, there is also a ripping suspense; again, not without B-movie elements — “the creatures are charging!” — but viscerally satisfying all the same.
Occasional deep conversations among students, or deep reflections in the main characters’ quiet moments, expand a vision of pluralism where moderate, non-cultish Christianity is a well regarded part of the scene. This is where Kazmaier has gone out on a literary limb that makes one catch one’s breath. Today there is a secular genre, in essence atheistic with shamanistic decoration, as seen in Harry Potter, and there is a Christian genre, which is mostly American, fundamentalist, and apart. To interleave some Christianity into a regular story is a meme challenge. It’s something that would make some readers react to the book with the philosophical equivalent of the old ‘homosexual panic,’ a frisson of dread that one was being come on to by something far too Other. Kazmaier is right in his challenge to modern society: being Christian, especially non-fundamentalist, has become a deviance, subject to many layers of tacit social exclusion. The word ‘God,’ to many people, is a rude noise in the atheist church they dwell in, philosophically. It’s just soooo — uncool. Yet, an interesting case can be made for including God in the sphere of discourse. Kazmaier doesn’t go into great detail or depth about it – on the contrary, his practical and likeable student characters simply find their own path to tolerant atheism or tolerant Christianity.
Meanwhile, in tunnels below the ground and on fortified mountains in the distance, ancient evils are gathering strength.
No doubt we will meet them again in the sequel. And I am dying to read it.