Thursday, September 20, 2012

Review of "The Epiphanist" by William Rosencrans

Breaking into the sci-fi/fantasy market is relatively easy these days for authors uninterested in making readers think.  Experiencing a hey-day of sorts, the shelves are saturated with titles trying to fill every interstice between its successes.  With so much just trying to cash in on waves of entertainment, locating the truly original and worthwhile efforts amongst the pretenders and hack artists is increasingly difficult.  In other words, publishers simply cannot be trusted as filters for quality literature.  I am thankful, therefore, that I was introduced to William Rosencrans’ originally imagined and thought-provoking debut The Epiphanist.  Otherwise, it may have been lost in the deluge.

On the surface, The Epiphanist is the coming-of-age story of Vladimir, a genetically modified outcast living in the wastelands of the Holy City.  Every day a fight to survive in the war torn jungles of Abbadon, the rebels around Vlad wage what fight they can against the forces from the City, making the simple things in life, like education and food, anything but easy.  Rendering life more complicated is the surreal spin of nanotechnology.  Devices and monitors watching in the strangest of forms (satyrs to house flies, gentlemen in top hats to dragons), the morality of all is recorded by the Holy City to help decide whether or not the genetic misfits of Abaddon are allowed to pass through the City’s impenetrable nanowall into its idyllic halls.  Ethical advice coming in the strangest shapes and sizes, not to mention from all angles, Vlad is left with nothing but his wits to get him through the war and a chance at the Holy City.  But is it worth it?

Beneath the surface, the major themes at play in The Epiphanist are religion and societal revolution.  From recognizable beliefs like Christianity and Greek mythology to futuristic versions of old religions and cults, the “right thing to do” changes by location, and analyzing and balancing all of the conflicting principles initially proves bewildering for Vlad.  Nicely balancing theory, however, is the practical side of these beliefs, i.e. the behavior of the people purporting the various religious views and the subsequent mass effect on society.  At times entirely contradictory and at others wholly fundamentalist, there is a believably human aspect to the manner in which the peoples and sub-societies Vlad encounters practice their beliefs, rendering the book excellent commentary on mankind.  (For anyone worried the novel is just propaganda for a specific religion, rest assured the author’s aims are broader in scope.)  

Regarding style of storytelling, Rosencrans deadpans the text, giving few hints as to the actuality behind appearances.  Lacking authorial hand-holding (i.e. explaining the reason behind things—as I’m doing now), the resulting story is rich with detail, and as often as not, unpredictable.  Heightening this effect is the quality usage of sci-fi effects.  Though similar to the “technical” manner in which Neal Stephenson employs nanotech in The Diamond Age, Rosencrans uses the futuristic science along more symbolic, almost fantastical, lines.   Much of the imagery and many of the personalities Vlad encounters blur the lines of reality.  The result is a narrative not unlike Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun. What is only a result of the drugs Vlad is taking?  What is not?  Which character has ulterior motives, and, which is speaking from their heart?  What can be believed as “truth” and what not?  The answers to these questions slowly become obvious, but readers must be prepared to cogitate upon what they are presented.  It goes without saying The Epiphanist’s re-read value is high.

Though it is his first novel, Rosencrans’ writing style is consistent throughout.  Not literary in a baroque sense, sentence and syntax are no-nonsense; they relay scenes, imagery, and internal monologue in direct fashion.  Plotting dynamic toward the beginning, the narrative slowly gathers focus, building to a climax rich with imagination.  Story and theme complementing each other analogously, the denouement is in fact brilliant.  Vlad’s life becomes both a real and symbolic example of the personal themes Rosencrans is driving at.  Thus, despite the potential for reader confusion encountering the myriad of strangeness and ethical worldviews at the novel’s outset, the story builds to a conclusion that draws it all together perfectly, the journey worth the while.

And it is a journey.  Vladimir’s personal development key to the story, The Epiphanist interestingly shares the same story structure as Herman Hesse’s bildungsroman Siddharta.  Though written in science fiction terms, Vlad’s life shifts through the same three phases: in, out, and beyond.  To define these phases more clearly would ruin the story.  Suffice to say, the concept of transcendence permeating the novel’s conclusion is something readers of Eastern philosophy and Ken Wilber’s Integral Psychology will understand easily, and perhaps enjoy.  

In the end, The Epiphanist is a brilliant debut.  Filled to the brim with fantastical imagination, a simple but effective setting, a flawed main character, and theme strongly linked to story, the book is an organized milieu of beliefs and ideas that will have readers ruminating long after they’ve finished.  The sci-fi aspects and style of storytelling bearing much in common with Gene Wolfe’s Sun series, the message at the novel’s heart nevertheless holds greater similarity to the transcendence of Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, Silverberg’s Nightwings, or Hesse’s Siddharta.  Fans of any of these works will not be wasting their time checking out The Epiphanist.

(A side note: this is the first self-published book I have read.  Based on the quality, it will not be the last.  Given the focus on action and entertainment—the quick buck—that publishers these days are signing contracts for, i.e. ignoring manuscripts with higher standards in favor of hack efforts featuring gore, sex, and creepy aliens, I now stand in full support of this method.  It may be the only way quality literature is propagated in the future.  I do not know Mr. Rosencrans personally, but I suggest you support worthwhile sci-fi by purchasing The Epiphanist if this review has interested you.)

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