City at the End of Time: A Book Review
Welcome to my post-read review of Greg Bear's hard science fiction book, City at the End of Time. You may want to read the piece I wrote prior to this, my pre-read pre-review, to get a better idea of what I will be doing here. But it is not strictly necessary that you do so. But here it is if you do want to do so...
What are we looking at here?
We should start, I think, with my giving you a picture of what you will be looking at if and when you decide to read this book.
The first thing to do, to get our heads around this, is to take the title very literally: City at the End of Time. For the purposes of this story, there is city that literally sits at the end of time, in a sense. The city is called Kalpa.
Kalpa can be thought of Heaven---in a sense. But this being science fiction, we are not dealing with a "Heaven" of spiritual reward, but an "afterlife" of what I am going to call evolutionary culmination.
The thing to remember about Heaven, for religious people, is that is has a present existence; it exists now as a place where angels hang out; and it also exists as a future beckoning destination for the souls of the righteous. Heaven is not a place that mortals presently living can go to at will.
Kalpa, City at the End of Time. Of course, time has not "stopped." However the humans, allied species, and hybrids have evolved to the point whereby they can regard time as an object as well as a process of movement. Time can be treated as a structure that can wear away, fall apart, and constantly needs tending to here, reinforcing there.
Like any structure (such as a bridge, tunnel, or something) that requires constant tending, there is machinery with which to do this---reality generators; and "workers" in the form of people retro-engineered with the characteristics of ancient humans, because only this old version of humanity seems capable of producing individuals who are uniquely, psychically sensitive to the ways in which time can go wrong. In other words these individuals, dreamers, serve an crucial diagnostic function.
Presumably, the spiritual Heaven cannot be affected by anything that happens on Earth. Earth's destruction has no existential effect on the existence of Heaven. In fact, in some respects the apocalyptic ravagement (I just invented the word 'ravagement' as opposed to total destruction, per se) of the Earth opens the door of mass emigration of the rewarded souls to Heaven.
On the other hand, Kalpa's existence can be affected by what happens on Earth; or, more precisely---with respect to the various Earth-emanating, simultaneously existing, alternate time lines. What we're talking about is parallel universe/alternate reality-dimension stuff.
By the way, the ruling groups of Kalpa(humans, allied species, and hybrids) are known as the Tall Ones. The servant groups, the worker bees (the retro-engineered ancient humans) are called the breeders.
In the prologue we are given to understand that the various Earth-emanating, simultaneously existing, alternate time lines are suffering degradation. We learn that whole segments of history may have been lost; and that time lines (or "world-lines") are being "severed and unnaturally rejoined." History may be corroding.
In the prologue, "The Kalpa" is described as the "last refuge of the old reality but our influence is too small." I read this to mean that: formerly, when healthy and functioning, all the world-lines led to the creation(the evolutionary culmination) of Kalpa and many other such cities "at the end of time."
However, the various dimensions of history have deteriorated to such an extent that only Kalpa, this single city of "Heaven" of this evolutionary culmination remains. On top of that, the existence of Kalpa is dangerously precarious. Unless this crisis is arrested and reversed, Kalpa will be undone, unmade out of existence.
Kalpa, therefore, is where it would appear has to "make its last stand," as it were, against the forces of the typhon (chaos).
It would seem likely that be being known as the Chalk Princess (or the Livid Mistress) and her minions are the ones behind the chaotic severing and unnatural rejoining of the world-lines, so that reality can be rewritten in such a way that she will emerge as the Empress of Kalpa (and perhaps whatever additional reconstructed "cities at the end of time" may be brought about).
As I mentioned in the pre-review, the heroes are three young people (from our "ancient" time period): Minny, Daniel, and Jack. They have the power to leave their bodies and fling their consciousnesses into the parallel universes, inhabiting the bodies of alternate versions of themselves.
Their adversaries are the Chalk Princess and her minions, who have similar powers. They are the ones who must defeat the "Livid Mistress" and her brood, restore the world-lines, thereby saving "Heaven," and so forth.
Let's get into the analytical portion of this review. I want to start by saying that this novel's plot is of a complexity that I would have expected to have been accommodated by multiple volumes, a trilogy at least. For a single volume of less than five hundred pages, the book is quite concise.
I also want to note that the novel confronted an enormous technical problem. I cannot stress this enough because this is a technical problem, which, in my opinion, has defeated every single author, every single filmmaker, and every single television studio who has confronted it. That, in my regretful analysis, it has also defeated Mr. Bear, is, therefore, not to be taken as a poor reflection upon his skill as a prose-smith and novelist.
This technical problem is, as I see it, virtually an "immovable object" in all of science fiction literature. From my perspective, there is only one novelist and one novel which has ever, ever, ever successfully met this challenge, and he did it in a different way. But I'll come to that in one moment.
The Technical Problem
The technical problem I'm talking about is simply this: How do you effectively present the multiverse, in such a way that you clearly delineate the different, distinctive character of each alternate dimension/parallel universe.
I know what you're thinking: I've seen plenty of television shows, movies, and books with the parallel universe theme in them.
But that is not what I just said! I am claiming that you have never ever, ever, ever actually seen a television show, movie, or novel with the parallel universe theme effectively delineated so that you see different versions of contemporary reality in such a way that there is a very clear and distinctive difference between those planes of reality. I know that I, personally, have not!
Let me give you my one example in which this has been done, and you will, I hope, see exactly what I mean. By the way, there will never been a film in which parallel dimensions are effectively presented unless and until a film version of this book is made.
Philip K. Dick's novel "Eye in the Sky"
The science fiction writer (not hard Sci-Fi) Philip K. Dick(1928-1982) wrote a novel called Eye in the Sky. Its about eight people who get caught in a cyclotron demonstration (they call it the "Belmont Bevatron") accident, which renders them badly hurt, and most of their number unconscious.
The outcome of this is to propel the eight into the worlds of the people who had, for whatever reason, been hurt but not knocked unconscious---the inner worlds of the people who had retained their consciousnesses during the accident. One of the people was shown to be a religious fanatic and the world that the eight of them suffered through was a dramatic reflection of this; things like prayers, hymns, and the like worked from everything to making your car go to actually having money literally rain down from the sky. God was "real," whimsical, vindictive, and arbitrary; damnation was visited instantly upon anyone who "sinned;" and money was not used as a currency to buy things---this world ran on a prayer currency.
Another world reflected the inner life of a fussy, neat-obsessed female Felix Unger (The Odd Couple) type, who was passionate about art (or at least the need for "the arts" to be part of a civilized society), and dislike many, many, many things that she thought of as indecent and unclean or profane. Her world was one in which she was constantly "abolishing" things, whole categories of things and animals were wiped out with a snap of her fingers.
Once they escaped that world, they found themselves trapped in the world of one of their company, who happened to be a paranoiac. It was a world in which everything was harmful, seeking to hurt you. At one house even the house came "alive," trying to eat them. Yes!
The last world they all passed through, before paramedics could get to them and take them to the hospital, was one who was an extreme committed Communist. Basically, this world was a kind of Stalinist playground of horrors.
Philip K. Dick solved the problem of the Gordian Knot by simply slashing through it (1). When posed the question (How do you effectively convey the multiverse?), the answer he came up with is something like this: Well, each alternate reality is made of up the inner world of the individual's imagination on steroids.
Each "dimension" had the exact same urban and rural landscape, the same people with the same relationships to each other. But each plane had its own distinct, different underlying functionality. Again, in the case of the religious fanatic it was all of his ideology made actual, concrete, and effective. In the case of the obsessive-compulsive it was the whimsy of her will.
In the case of the paranoiac, it was her private fear, made manifest and universal, that everything was "out to get you." In the case of the Communist, as I said, it was as if Stalin had been made dictator of the Earth and a god.
The approach that Dick used in Eye in the Sky, reflects a very old tradition in philosophy. That very old tradition, going back to the ancient Greeks, goes like this: There is no fixed, unchanging truth (at least not one that we can detect). We increase our understanding of the world by observing phenomena, whose form comports to the very way we human beings think and conceive of the world. In other words, our trying to get at a fixed, unchanging, written-in-stone truth is like trying to nail jello to a wall. Furthermore, as modern quantum science tells us, even when we merely observe a phenomena, we are changing the phenomena.
So, the question of (What would an alternate, parallel dimension or alternate Earth look like?) is answered by the response of (It is whatever is looks like to me, a world animated and governed by the rules of my own inner life.).
Greg Bear's novel does not take that approach. Because the plot demands it, it takes the view that there is a fixed, objective truth, and that the various world-lines must be made to accord with the necessity of giving rise to the inevitable emergence of Kalpa. The world-lines are supposed to serve that purpose, therefore there is no room for subjective "reality-projection."
But because this is the case, and perhaps, too, that such a complex plot is constrained within a single volume, as I mentioned before, there is no time or space to craft separate, distinctive functionalities of each dimension, so that we can clearly see that "Now we are in dimension x, y, z, etc." This, in turn, means that the author is forced into a narrative style in which the novel must do a lot of its work by assumption.
What I mean by assumption is this: The only way we ever know that one of our heroes has entered into another dimension is that the author tells us this has occurred. The only way we know that one of our protagonists have entered an "alternate version of themselves," is that the author tells us.
Of course, their consciousnesses have entered other people, but we cannot see for ourselves that these are really alternate versions of Minny, Daniel, and Jack. Who are Minny, Jack, and Daniel, such that we can readily identify with them on an internal, psychological level that "stands out like a sore thumb," so that we would know those "souls" "anywhere." Know what I mean?
Again, such a huge, complex plot is limited to a single volume of under five hundred pages. Or, what I'm asking may simply be beyond the powers of literature.
Again, how do we know that Minny, Daniel, and Jack actually enter into alternate versions of themselves when their minds make the inter-dimensional leap? How can we see this for ourselves instead of having the author simply tell us this is so?
Is there yet another way of looking at all of this?
I'm going to consider that question right now; and I'm going to do so with the premise that much of what you have just read may be wrong. If I have said it once, I've said it dozens of times: If one is going to "critique" something, you must be sure that you have made every effort to properly see the thing for what it is, for what the thing sees itself as.
Let's go back to the criticism I made about the way Greg Bear displayed the multiverse. I said that there was no distinctive delineation between dimensions. In other words, there was nothing to distinguish one dimension from another; I said that this may be an unconquerable technical challenge that has defeated just about everybody. I compared his treatment of the multiverse unfavorably to the writer whom I said was the only one to ever deal with the phenomena successfully in print. The writer was Philip K. Dick and his novel was Eye in the Sky.
What I'm about to say here will negate the validity of my own previous criticism.
Say, you know how most of us like to make "copies" of important documents: birth certificates, bills of lading, tax forms, legal contracts, official correspondence of one kind or another, our computer files, and the like?
Question: Why do we customarily make copies of such things?
Answer: Because we do not want certain information to be lost. Because we believe we will be put to some disadvantage if this information is entirely lost. For those of you reading this who are economists/economic historians and such, certainly know the name Hernando De Soto. He is a Peruvian economist who, interestingly, believes that the element I just noted, the careful recording and preservation of INFORMATION is precisely what distinguishes the advanced, dynamic capitalist economies of Western Europe, Canada, Australia, and the United States from that of the relatively habitually sluggishly performing economies of the developing world.
We say that 'Knowledge is power.' For our purposes we need to correct that to: 'Information is power.' The final metamorphosis brings us to: 'The preservation of information is power.'
De Soto believes that it is the recording and preservation of information that unlocks dynamism of investment in capitalist economies; and we, ordinary people, must believe something like this: The preservation of information helps us function in ways we take for granted. Who owns what is known, and so forth.
Anyway, all of that is why we make copies of documents like wills and contracts, and everything else.
The other thing about this is that we believe that the 'original' document is the most important, even though it and the copies say the exact same thing. Since the original is the most important, we tend to leave it in the most important place of safekeeping, right?
So, the executor of an estate will probably have the original copy of a will, for example, with copies made and distributed with persons who have a descending level of importance relative to the discharge of the terms of the will, yes?
What if something like this dynamic is what Greg Bear had in mind when he created the world of City at the End of Time?
Example: President Kennedy set it as a goal that the United States reach the Moon by something like the end of the 1960s, or something like that, right?
Okay, we know that, historically, this happened.
Suppose that at the time this charismatic U.S. President made such an inspiring challenge, multiple, alternate reality "copies" of the path, which turned out to be the successful historical outcome of meeting this challenge, follow?
Suppose the "copies" or "reality-copies" of the successful, historical outcome of the mission to get the U.S. to the Moon, had been made shortly after the time the President made this challenge.
Suppose that the purpose of these various reality-copies of a specific historical trajectory were made to ensure that at least one "got through," as it were. The purpose of the "copies" would be to safeguard the success of the goal.
All of this begs the question: If all of this is true, then who would have made the "reality-copies" of the historical trajectory encompassing the mission to land on the Moon?
It would seem that the most likely indicated answer would be: Everyone who voted for Kennedy and were inspired by him; everyone who did not vote for him, but, nevertheless, came to be inspired by his soaring rhetoric; every voting adult in the United States at least---several tens of millions of American citizens.
If this is something like the way the multiverse works, in Greg Bear's novel, then there would be no reason why one "world-line," or "dimension," or "alternate reality," should be all that different from any other, almost by definition. From these deductions it actually does follow that what I called a narrative style of "assumption" is a perfectly valid, and perhaps necessary, way of presenting the multiverse.
Returning to the novel, we can certainly see why the chaos wrecking the "world-lines," should be so concerning, to say the least; doubly so, since no one can tell which "reality-copy," leading to the creation of Kalpa (and other such cities at the end of time), is the "most important;" or if there is such a thing as the most important reality-copy; or, if such a most-important or "original" reality-copy exists---where is it? How do we know "it" is inviolably safe? And so on.
Let's go back to the Moon-landing example, and also the way I told you that Philip K. Dick handled the multiverse in his novel, Eye in the Sky.
You know how we say, "It takes all kinds to make the world go around"? I rather believe that is true, myself. If we believe that life is about collectivity, collaboration, cooperation, and teamwork, and all that good stuff, then does this not call for further reinterpretation of the "reality-copying" scenario I just presented?
Perhaps such a venture of landing on the Moon required: a little bit of faith (as opposed to actual religious fanaticism); a little healthy fear (as opposed to actual, crippling paranoia); a little bit of collectivization of economic resources and social purpose (as opposed to Stalinist oppression or something like that; and a little bit of "negative thinking" (as opposed actual obsessive-compulsion---there is something to be said for knowing what to say 'no;' in an enterprise, there is value in being able to reject undesirable aspects of it).
I just mentioned softened, refined versions of the four "worlds" featured in Eye in the Sky: religious fanaticism; paranoia; extreme adherence to Communism; and obsessive-compulsion.
This would mean that no one person, or group of persons, or even set of philosophies is enough to carry history forward. Perhaps, then, what needs to be "copied" are sets or bundles of "world-line" strands, in this case the quartet of characteristics and perspectives I've just alluded to.
But we don't have the right to imply that Greg Bear should have taken that direction. If he had done so, he would have indeed needed multiple volumes to tell the story. As it stands, City at the End of Time is an achievement that handles a quite complex situation very efficiently and effectively in a single volume of less than five hundred pages. Once I understood what he was doing in that book, the reading became much more fun and easy.
Question: How could the hopes and dreams of humanity have led to something like Kalpa?
Answer: Perhaps it is enough that billions of us believe in one form or another of Heaven; and Kalpa is the actual, realized manifestation of such longing.
This novel is an achievement in the sense that we are even challenged morally to consider whether Kalpa is even worth saving.
This is a good place to bring this review to a close because I think we've hit upon what hard science fiction is all about. Again, I'm talking about what is called hard science fiction, as opposed to other forms of science fiction. Hard science fiction is among the most soaringly (I just invented the word 'soaringly') idealistic, morally complex, and metaphysically ambitious literature we have.
As I always say, hard science fiction is very left-brained and technical (I, myself, am very right-brained and non-technical). I think that is because the genre seeks to create technical plausibility for the manifestation of miracles, you might say. In this respect, this left-brained, technical hard science fiction is rather right-brained in its goal: bringing mythology to life.
Anyway, I recommend the book. Of course it is NOT light reading, for the faint of heart. But if you do the work, you will be rewarded amply.
Thank you for reading.
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