Earthling by Daniel, Tony, 1998

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I have been a fan of author Tony Daniel since I read his novella A Dry Quiet War in Gardner Dozois' 1996 or so Years Best of volume. A Dry Quiet War is a military piece with an interesting time travel element to it, and a bit of a love story as well. But Daniel does not publish very often, and other than another novella called Grist I had not read anything else by him until picking up this book, his first novel, called Earthling. This book was a bit difficult for me to get through, though I think that in the end Daniel succeeded in what he was trying to do. Three out of five stars, though just barely.

Earthling reads very much like a fix up, as it tells the story of two main characters who only meet briefly in the very end. The first character is a dead geologist named Victor Wu whose mind has been implanted into an advanced robotic tunneling machine. Victor's job is to core to the center of the Earth to fulfill a research and scientific discovery mission. The purpose of the project is never made clear, but as Victor starts to remember who he was as a human, and grows into a new identity, that of Orpheus, or "Orf." Meanwhile a group of environmental terrorists has started to consolidate political power in the Pacific Northwest, where this story is set, and has decided that Orf's project must stop. The group, called the Matriarchy, sends a group to assault their camp, but Orf and Andrew both escape. Andrew goes into the forest and organizes the U.S. Park Rangers into a fighting force whose mission is to stop both the loggers, who want to exploit the forest, and the Matriarchy, who want to kill anyone who dares touch it. At the same time Orf descends to the bottom of his tunnel and encounters an inchoate form of life that is indigenous to Earth and who are getting ready to begin a project of their own that will wreck havoc on the surface. Shortly thereafter a massive earthquake hits in Washington State that is so powerful it levels the entire region. The weakened U.S. government fails and the rest of the world slips back into savagery.

Daniel then moves a hundred or so years into the future and tells the story of one of the Park Rangers soldiers, named Jarrod. The Rangers have decided that their numbers are so few that they cannot spare the time to mate, and instead steal children to replace their aging numbers. At the time the story is told Jarrod has fallen in love with another Ranger, and when he is found out he is excommunicated from the group. But instead of just throwing him to he wolves, the Rangers ask him to travel to Yosemite where bubonic plague has broken out and risks the Ranger's mission there. As it turns out the surviving Rangers there have noticed some odd geological activity, and suspect that the poles of the Earth are reversing. They want Jarrod to find out if the Yosemite Rangers, who always did have an excellent grasp of geology, have any ideas what is going on. Jarrod travels to Yosemite and along the way is beset by murderers and pirates. When he eventually reaches Yosemite Jarrod is told that not only are the poles switching, but the San Andreas Fault is moving east at a rapid clip and will join with another fault that is east of the high Sierras. Once that happens a massive earthquake occurs which wipes out most of the survivors on the surface. Still, humanity survives and joins with the underground intelligences, now called Terraces. Orf returns and is an ambassador of sorts. The humans and the Terraces join minds and are able to travel in ethereal form to stars that are hundreds of light years away.

Though I like Daniel's style of writing, this book just had too many loose threads and non-sequiturs in it to really be enjoyable. It was a fight to find some of the connections, and Daniel added to the difficulty by jumping around so much, and especially by abandoning characters and threads for sometimes hundreds of pages. In the end, Daniel did have something novel to say about culture, and since the main theme of the book was the disintegration of culture because of human folly, it fit with the book:

Nature on Earth is a collection of things and facts in symbiosis. It's an ecology. So is culture. Culture is the shaping of our minds to nature. It's our response, as a species, to being here. That's why you can't get world peace by imposing order. It has to grow. Look at the sad history of the twentieth century - or worse, our own twenty-first-century madness. People trying too hard.

But after the growing is over, what do we do then? When we're children, we get our culture - and our culture gets us. That's what individuals are. We are the meeting and melding of culture and nature. We enter adulthood as the biological survivors of these two processes. But nature and culture go on interacting long after we've survived. Long after Darwin has had his say.

Then you have art. Art is culture and nature attempting to project itself beyond itself. That's where war and strife come from, perhaps. Thatís definitely where beauty comes from.

Beauty is something new. It is something other than you and something other than the world. It is the universe humming a song.

When the hum of beauty grows to a full symphony, you can not break out of the hum, become only you again. You are unable to stop getting it. It gets you, and releases you only when it - the hum - is done singing itself. The moment of release is determined by the particular song. That's what awe is. When you are singing and being sung by the world.

Is that clear enough for you? Well, what I think Daniel is saying here is that culture and aesthetics and nature are all wound up in the same ball of yarn, and if nature is out of kilter, then culture is going to suffer for it. He used a reverse example here, where nature goes off kilter and culture suffered, rather than the other way around, but in the end it was not until the humans got control of their environments that culture came back and could produce a desirable living situation. The Terraces, instead of being the cause of the strife, were the catalyst for change, and not until humans and the Terraces recognized each other and "mated," or became something greater than the sum parts of themselves, could humans rise up again. At least I think that is what Daniel had in mind here. But quite literally the story was a jumbled mess, and built to nothing other than a bland statement of the above. There was no real moment of epiphany, and if Daniel had not come out and stated this, I think that reading the book would have been a complete exercise in futility. This one is probably best avoided, unfortunately.

Copyright © 2008, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 3 star(s)

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