Monday, October 29, 2012

The Epiphanist: Review

When discussing self-published writing there is the unavoidable impulse to grade on a curve. There are good reasons for it. Most self-published material is below the not-exact-lofty standards of professional fiction, in ways that become obvious on page one. But even when better books come along, I sometimes find myself diminishing their achievement, thinking of them as "good (for something self-published)," even when they're no worse than what you'd find on a bookstore shelf from a major publisher. And then I read William Rosencrans' The Epiphanist, a novel that made such condescension impossible, a story so polished, thoughtful, and rich in sense of place that it demands to be thought of as a fine science fiction novel full stop. In fact, I liked it so much that I'm breaking new ground for this blog and posting an excerpt and an author interview as well as a review. The excerpt will appear later today, while the interview will follow on Wednesday. I'll update this post once both are available. (If I haven't, leave a comment reminding me.)

Because it is on the simple level of sentence construction that the typical self-published novel most visibly falls down, I should begin with the question of style. Since a long excerpt from The Epiphanist will appear separately, I'll forego my usual practice of quoting a couple passages. It would be hard to find appropriate ones, anyway, though this Amazon review does a good job; what makes Rosencrans so unusual among self-published writers, and, alas, among the traditionally-published as well, is the simple clarity of his sentences. There are no verbal pyrotechnics here, even when there are literal ones, but the language is never cluttered, banal, or obvious. I am embarrassed to admit that a lot of books bring out the clucking English teacher I never became, making me want to go over them with a red pen: "this word isn't used in this sense," "that modifier ought to be somewhere else." Not so with The Epiphanist, which is carefully wrought and occasionally finds a gentle beauty in the flow of images through the mind of its quietly observant protagonist.

It may seem odd to praise a book's style almost entirely by saying that it isn't flawed, but there are stories that almost demand this sort of subdued, difficult-to-describe prose, and The Epiphanist is one, precisely because its world is so lively, both physically and intellectually. The setting is the future (vaguely post-apocalyptic, though the details of how we got from here to there are not a major focus) and the war-torn island of Abaddon. The inhabitants of Abaddon are exiles, those deemed unsuitable for the wider world due to behavior or to perceived flaws in the templates from which they've been genetically engineered. But there is hope: if they can prove their moral worth by passing the examen, a rigorous study of their past actions (as recorded by the ever-present but invisible monitors) and present beliefs, they can enter the Holy City and live a life of peace and luxury. Of course, almost no one is ever deemed worthy. But Vladimir, the novel's young hero, may have some hope-- if he lives long enough to get there.

As this outline may suggest, the distinctive thing about The Epiphanist is its blend of old and new, strange and familiar, futuristic ideas used to explore ancient questions about right action, social order, and the possibility of goodness. The novel takes a nuanced and balanced approach to these questions, allowing different characters to put forth a range of opinions on religion, politics, and the underlying morality of each, always credibly, without force-feeding the reader a required perspective on anything (though that's not to say the book lacks an attitude of its own). The protagonist and title character does, as the title suggests, have his share of sudden revelations, but the reader isn't expected to agree with them, and can enjoy the flow of ideas and plot developments in a number of different ways, right down to the hauntingly ambiguous ending, which manages at once to reveal a good deal and to leave itself open. That Rosencrans can engage such heavy topics in the course of a long story without once becoming dogmatic is another sign of his depth as a writer.

But even before noticing that, the first-time reader of The Epiphanist is likely to be struck by the eccentric richness of its setting. Abaddon is a tropical island, and its flora and fauna have the intensity of the jungle, but the politics, society, and technology of the isle are a fascinating mix of varying places and times, past, present, and future. Gunships, swordsmen, feline-human hybrids, coke ovens, feudalism, limousines, gnosticism: it ought to feel like a meaningless hodgepodge or a showy collection of notions, but instead, unfurled gradually and without ugly exposition in Rosencrans' direct prose, it becomes a credible community, recognizably human for all its wildness, the best kind of science fiction milieu.

I haven't said much about the plot, nor will I. It isn't the point, nor is it especially "action-packed," though there are a few harrowing sequences of different sorts. The joy of The Epiphanist is the surprising world it unfolds (and if you think my laundry list of elements above has given everything away, don't worry: there's more where that came from), the old philosophical issues which are given new relevance in that setting, and the character of Vladimir, who wants to know what is true and right but is torn in a dozen different directions and is, like any of us, capable of terrible things. Like much thoughtful fiction, this novel is more about laying out dilemmas and showing possible responses to them than about providing easy answers, but the narrative arc, which ultimately reminds us that certain historic processes work regardless of how we interpret them, provides a sense of closure greater than that offered by explicit thematic summing-up.

Does this book have limitations? Of course. Gripped as I was by it, I never wanted it to move faster, but some may feel that Vladimir's peregrinations in the middle section go on too long. Readers led by my praise to expect great novelty will probably be disappointed; the blend of ideas here is unlike anything else you've read, but the individual components are readily recognizable from other science fiction. But these are the debatable flaws of a good novel, not the indisputable errors of an obvious failure. The Epiphanist is one of my favorite novels of 2012, and while you may not like it as much as I did, it's definitely worthy of your attention. The Kindle edition is a mere 99 cents (in the US; I assume it's roughly similar in the UK), a remarkable bargain for a novel of this caliber; even a print copy is more than worth its present price. William Rosencrans is a writer of prodigious gifts, and I'm eager to see what he'll do next.

The author supplied me with a review copy of this book.

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