This must have happened to you: you pick up a book and find it’s the second or third in a series. With some, for example David Brin’s “Uplift” SF series, it doesn’t matter hugely because the characters and environments are different and the basic concepts of uplift, the progenitors and humanity’s orphan or parvenu status are quite easily conveyed. It would matter hugely with Tolkien or Mervyn Peake, though.
This one is in between. I hadn’t read or heard of the opening book, “The Traveller”, and found “The Dark River” referring back repeatedly. The author (I assume “Twelve Hawks” is a pen-name or an assumed day-name) explains the underlying imagined rules of his world at some length, so I do get to understand them. In fact if I’d read the first book I might have found this explanation a bit tedious.
So what’s it about and what kind of book is it? Ah. Good questions. The premises are that for ages two special kinds of humans have existed – Travellers, able to travel into other parallel realms, and Harlequins, dedicated to fighting to protect Travellers from their persecutors. Why Harlequins should do this isn’t really explained. The other realms are depicted as real, physical worlds where machines work if a power source is provided and people need to eat and can get hurt or die. Returning Travellers bring new ideas which create diversity and change in our society in an unpredictable way. There have alsways been organisations which saw this as bad and tried to suppress it.
In Twelve Hawks’ world, which is the present or very near future, one such secret organisation (“The Tabula”) has come very near to success, hunting down Travellers and Harlequins alike. It works within government and business as a kind of shadow international government, but without Bond story type melodrama, entering and taking over useful organisations. The author is very good on how close we are to this through systems that can track our every step on the internet, for example. He acutely identifies the British philosopher Jeremy Bentham, with his proposal of the panopticon (where authorities could see everything prisoners did) and his subtly dangerous elevation of the principle of “the greatest happiness of the greatest number” (so to make a lot of people a bit more happy, it’s OK to deceive them or to persecute a minority) as a kind of prophet of scientific authoritarianism. He knows his computers and understands his worlds of public affairs and business. It’s easy to pick out present or recent politicians like America’s Dick Cheney or Britain’s Tony Blair who would enthusiastically embrace the Tabula’s programme. I like his implied politics.
So the politics is well-thought-out and credible. I’m not sure whether the scene is the present or, say, ten years in the future, but it can’t be much further because all the technology and culture referred to exists now. If you consider how fast the internet or mobile phones arose, that must mean it’s set very near indeed to now. That being the case, I think the book overstates the power of control, not in what it can do (for example a computer worm which invades and lies in most computers waiting for certain words or phrases to be used and then passes on the material to its masters) but in what people can and will do to challenge oppression. For example, the book opens with a peaceful religious community in the U.S. being massacred with guns the Tabula’s control of the internet has enabled it to falsely register to the members of that community, who were in fact unarmed. In reality, in a country where information is as open and professionals are as well-equipped as the U.S., this would be a hard one to carry off. The premise is that most police and civil servants don’t know what’s happening. Well, I suspect police would want to identify which individuals fired the shots. Lawyers for families of some of the victims would push them, arguing their relative couldn’t have been a killer. None of the bodies would reveal the tell-tale signs of having handled and fired weapons. Neighbours would be quoted in the media saying they found these folks reasonable and peaceable. In a country so fond of conspiracy theories, questions would snowball. There are similar difficulties with a party of mercenaries invading an Irish island nature reserve. On a different level, I don’t believe a clutch of current rising military and police officers from democratic countries would be at ease with a speaker complimenting them on rejecting the false ideal of freedom. She’d have explained that freedom needed to be redefined and properly understood (so it wasn’t freedom any more).
But these are relatively small points and I can imagine the world in ten years’ time fitting the book’s picture more closely, though I don’t believe there’s a real Tabula (yet).
Mixing this with the new age mysticism leaves me dubious. I can’t quite buy into these very physical, almost mundane, other worlds, or into the Harlequins, who seem sometimes to employ the psychology of the SS to protect freedom and diversity. I wonder if the books would have worked with more believable, mystical mystics and protectors less like a secret knightly order still upsetting the applecart.
It took a long time before I cared what happened to the perpetually threatened main characters. It does detract a bit from one’s excitement if you don’t really care if someone in dire danger dies or not. Maybe if I’d read the first book first I’d care more, but I think JTH is not good at bringing his characters to life.
He writes well, though. Initially his writing seemed close to the sterile orthodoxy of American “stripped down” writing, but the initial description of a Traveller’s waking in the realm of death is powerful stuff. He could do more of this.
The action sequences are quite credible. One big strength of the book is that JTH seems at home in the U.S. and Britain (so many writers just don’t quite get the language or the street-scene right and fall victim to stereotypes or to writing without any local colour) and his scenes in Ireland, Italy and Ethiopia seem credible too (though I haven’t been to Ethiopia, I have been elsewhere in East Africa), though the German scenes are less so. The sense of belonging to Britain and America equally does lead to some strange linguistic mixes, for example when a character is on the sidewalk (U.K. – pavement) using his mobile phone (U.S. – cell phone). His information on the London docks seems out of date (maybe he’s an American who lived for a while in London?) and there is one gross factual mistake when a flock of pelicans are seen without remark off the West coast of Ireland. Even one wild pelican would bring Irish birders (= birdwatchers) from all corners. The nearest breeding or wintering ones are in the Balkans or in West Africa and five minutes checking on the internet would have told him this (but maybe he feared the Tabula would catch him).
Will I go back and read “The Traveller”? I’m not exactly hooked – but probably.