I spent time with an old friend this weekend. That’s one of the nice things about living in our contemporary world, you can travel in time. The time machine is not very special, but it performs a neat trick.
Sorry for the metaphor, but there are few artful ways of saying the I wasted my Sunday watching the animated Star Trek series on Netflix.
As a child, I remember when science fiction had an endless edge to it. Writers like Ray Bradbury, Roger Zelazny, Arthur C. Clarke, and countless others churned out novels and short stories that were markedly different from the science fiction works they succeeded. Prior to the “New Wave” (a term loathed by many of its members), science fiction was a world of rocket ships and trips to Mars. That was all well and good, but the genre needed to be something bigger, something grander.
When the New Wave hit, Clarke gave us the secrets to humanity’s origin. As the wave wound down, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle gave us ringworlds and semi-anthropomorphic elephants. It was a grand time.
Such was the zeitgeist of science fiction, that a Saturday-morning cartoon version of Gene Roddenberry’s classic Star Trek could not only be made, but could include works of fiction that felt like animated editions of hard sci-fi. It was glorious.
The New Wave ended, as it had to. In its place came a great deal of science fiction that tried to do the same and tried to do more. It succeeded quite often, but often it failed.
I thought about all of this as I prepared to read Souls of Astraeus by author Jeramy Goble. The book jacket describes a main character who lives countless lives and travels through parallel universes. There is implied conflict that relates to both the innate nature of humanity and also that of sentient life throughout creation.
This is heady stuff, indeed, and challenging prose to write.
I was initially turned off by some of the author’s choices, but eventually won over by this unique and, one hopes, ultimately fruitful book. I want to address the book’s biggest flaw first, not so much to criticize as much to guide the reader beyond the flaw and into the real quality that lies beyond.
There is a rule (if one can safely call it that) of storytelling that applies to books, motion pictures, plays, and the like. It can be summed as “show me, don’t tell me.” In the movie world, violators of this rule are easy to spot. Watch anything directed by Ed Wood, and you will suffer through countless scenes in which characters stand about and describe things the director was either unable or unwilling to film. They always fail to entertain. It is just boring to hear about a mad scientist or monstrous alien who attacks the Earth. Such things are vastly more engrossing when they are portrayed before our eyes.
With motion pictures, this is somewhat forgivable. Aliens are expensive to create and film. It is far more economical to simply tell us about them. This truism is not true, however, when the rule of “show me, don’t tell me” is applied to written storytelling. How much does it cost to write about an alien? About as much as it costs to write about a horse or, for that matter, a table. So why not write about the alien?
Early on in Souls of Astraeus, we see this problem. I can forgive this to a point, mainly because of the sheer complexity of the material the author is working with. That said, I found myself reading pages of description and history wondering if it would have been better to show me instead of telling me. Why not give the reader a protagonist as confused by the material as the reader? That protagonist could explore and learn about this complex world and, in doing so, guide the reader through exposition.
Happily, this problem soon abates, and we are left with a well-written, and artfully-crafted story concept. In brief, the novel tells the story of Akal, a sometime-human who has lived countless lives over something like eleven billion years. During that time, he has lived in the bodies of countless species spread across a multiverse of worlds. Upon living his final life in this reincarnation merry-go-round, he finds himself at a crossroads.
Unable to simply continue living life after life, Akal becomes one of the mysterious Astraeans, near-eternal beings who can travel through space-time and who can, conveniently, take on the physical forms of their past lives. That’s useful when your roster of past lives includes stints as all manner of life forms. Need to fly? Good thing you once were a flying creature.
Akal’s actions are motivated by three general causes. First, he is driven to avenge the death of his human wife; she who was murdered for the crime of wanting a child. Next, he seeks to find out if the child she wanted actually came to be and now exists in the same supernatural form as Akal himself.
Ultimately, Akal is forced to deal with the rather unpleasant reality that his near-eternal and semi-omnipotent existence might have an expiration date much closer than he anticipated. It is that concept, the mysterious assault on Astraean existence itself, that ties together this story and, presumably, the books that follow.
Goble, like Niven or Clarke, sees a universe that you and I do not. He has clearly spent many hours imagining a variety of alien worlds and asking “What if?” Whether it be a planet ruled by grasshoppers or one like the Borg homeworld only with pubs, Goble does not spare detail. Happily, when he hits his stride from a storytelling perspective, he delivers a novel that will grab your attention and hold onto it.
John Gardner once wrote that the reader must understand, and the writer before the reader must have understood, more than the reader knows about the character. How does the writer accomplish that task for a character so inherently different from himself? Akal is, as I mentioned, eleven billion years old. Moreover, he has lived most of that time as something other than a human being. Thus, his motivations, his desires, and his actions, are all inherently inhuman.
Goble manages to keep Akal well within range of the humans who read his book. This is impressive, because it would have been easy to reduce him to an uninteresting demi-god or a moping, detached sourpuss. Akal is, for all his inhumanity, human. That is essential for a story like this, and Goble is to be complimented for the direction he chose.
Ultimately, this is a plucky book that fights for you to like it. There are some missteps early on, but these can be passed-through with minimal distraction. If the reader knows what he or she is getting into, this is a book that will captivate and impress. Souls of Astraeus tells the story of a big-picture multiverse while hewing close to basic humanity. It pays homage to the New Wave while forging a path all its own.
SOULS OF ASTRAEUSBy Jeramy GoblePublished by Noachian Books, Kindle price $3.99Purchase on the Amazon Kindle Store