February 14th, 2005

For much of my reading history, I’ve been on a steady diet of epic fantasy…the kind of novels that have earned various derogatory nicknames by those who don’t care for them, like “EFP” or “Doorstop Fiction.” I sometimes wonder if I’ve developed a warped sense of pacing because of it, or perhaps it really is the case that a lot of fiction is rushed (relatively) to accomplish what the author wants in the space he perceives available. That’s certainly what this novel felt like, and it’s something I’ve noticed seems particularly common in first novels written outside of the “glory days” of gigantic novels in the ’90s. Neverness is certainly epic in scope, describing both a far future world of Clarke’s-3rd-Law-applicable advanced science, but also taking us through the daily lives of Neanderthals and their icy world. The stark disparity between these two settings (which are, in fact, seperated by only miles within the context of the story) led to much of my feeling that what I was reading really should have been more than one book. For a (spoiler-free) summary and analysis, look below the fold… Zindell tells this tale through the voice of Mallory Ringess, a young pilot of a single-man exploratory ship capable of instantaneous travel from point-to-point…if a route can be found. These routes are determined by complex mathematical calculations, which must be applied ad-hoc to the local conditions of space-time around the ship, and so the primary ability necessary in a Pilot is mathematical prowess of an advanced nature. Pilots are at the core of a quasi-religious Order seeking knowledge and enlightenment through study of the mind and the universe, based in the fantastic city of Neverness on the frozen planet of Icefall. Having been told by entities best described as Gods that a great secret was hidden in the oldest DNA of humanity, Mallory concludes that he needs the genetic materials of Neanderthals. Of course, Old Earth and all its resources are long lost to Mallory’s civilization, but the Order was not the first to colonize Icefall. It was (conveniently) populated long ago by men of Earth, Luddites who spliced their DNA with that of a Neanderthal to survive the harsh climate of their chosen world in the simplest fashion possible, by muscle and leather and stone. Genetic modification is vehemently taboo to the civilization of Neverness, (Zindell is a great one for invented words, and his characters call this crime “slelling”) but is rendered mostly unnecessary by the extraordinary skills of their surgeons, who can transform a normal man into a physical replica of a Neanderthal with just a few weeks of surgery, and this is the plan Mallory proposes to infiltrate the original citizens of Icefall (with whom contact is forbidden). For reasons which are not at all immediately clear, the leader of the Order (a timelessly-old, irascible fellow called The Timekeeper) assigns as the team to do so Mallory, his best friend (Pilot), his mother (scientist), his aunt (Pilot), his cousin (a “scryer” capable of foreseeing the future, and the woman who Mallory is passionately in love with), and his uncle, Soli, Lord Pilot, with whom Mallory shares a rivalry and a hatred that is surpassed only by their resemblance to one another, physically and mentally. Perhaps needlessly said, living among Neanderthal’s, particularly in the winter of a world which is perpetually covered in ice, is rather more difficult than Mallory first imagined, but it is also spiritually rewarding in ways he did not expect. Still, the difficulties of the situation lead to emotional and physical conflict, resulting in violence, panicked flight, and death. All of this, mind you, is only about halfway through the book. See what I mean? Zindell has a very complicated world here…one with tons of back-story, complex characters, and two detailed settings, but it feels like he’s cramming it into his ~550 pages because he’s terrified he’d never get all of it published otherwise (which may very well have been the motivation…as I mentioned, this was his first major novel, and I could certainly see one feeling that sort of panic). This book would be much better suited to a duology, or possibly a trilogy. Set the first part of the book entirely in the world of Neverness and its high-technology and mathematics, set the second primarily in the world of Icefell’s Neanderthals, and mix up the third as necessary having established the settings in the previous two. Zindell concludes with revelations about the Secret of Life, enlightenment, and the nature of Godhood, with some surprises and twists along the way, but occasionally the characterization is spotty and/or irritating. I couldn’t ever say I didn’t care about the characters, but I often didn’t much like them, particularly Mallory who (as Novak said to me) can be a bit of a twit sometimes. So although I found this to be an ultimately rewarding and very interesting read, I can’t wholeheartedly recommend it to everyone. If you’re fascinated by math, or by books about achieving enlightenment through technological advancement, or by Neanderthals, or some combination thereof, check this one out…but if all that (and lots more) in one book sounds like it might stress your patience, I’d give this one a pass.

2 Responses to “Neverness”

  1. Pam says:

    I remember trying to read this some time ago, on Novak’s persistent recommendation. I didn’t get very far in because I found the narrative voice to be unbearably annoying. "Can be a bit of a twit sometimes" is a monumental understatement.

  2. Skwid says:

    Yeah, it’s definitely on the mild side. "Can be a bit of an irrational, impulsive asshole, sometimes" would really be more accurate. Mind you, I have known people like that, but of the super-smart people I’ve known, none have had that trait, and being in the head of someone who does is…straining.

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