Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Review of Miracle Visitors by Ian Watson

Abductions in the middle of lonely fields; crop circles; strange lights hovering in the sky and disappearing at impossible speeds; beings in society who look just like us but are not; strange, late night visitations.  What does it all mean?  Do people who claim such things need psychiatric help, or are they real experiences, real perceptions?  Is it something they are among the chosen few to be participant to, or is it mere hallucination?

    He raced his bicycle towards the rise.
    Resting among the gorse sat a wingless metal ellipsoid as large as a milk tanker. It no longer glowed, but seemed to be pulsing as if breathing: a metallic lung, emitting a bee-like hum.  As he watched, it steadied, firmed.  Light streamed from a porthole.

Such is the intro to Ian Watson’s 1987 Miracle Visitors.  A persistently evolving novel, what starts as an alien encounter develops into a story of consciousness, perception, and hints of the collective unconscious.  Arabic sufis, anti-gravity Ford Thunderbirds, and a little green man round out the genre contribution to what is a kaleidoscope story difficult to pin down—just like claims of alien encounters.

As a boy, Michael Peacocke had the above alien experience riding his bicycle home late one afternoon on an empty meadow road.  But he has no memory of it.  It’s when taking part in Prof. John Deacon’s hypnosis studies that the knowledge escapes.  Relaying the details of the encounter while in a trance, even stranger events conspire around Peacocke, little to his knowledge.  In faraway North Africa, an unearthly wiseman makes himself known to a local sufi—the wisdom of the ages spun perennially in the aftermath.  A young woman in the US sees a green goblin.  And a former Air Force pilot, now UFO hunter, sees things he’d never seen before.  But it’s when returning to the meadow road that Peacocke gets the (conscious) experience of his life.  Taken on a most amazing ride in a Ford Thunderbird souped up on alien matter reactors, he learns what’s happening behind the closed doors of the perceived reality.  Or does he?

Miracle Visitors is a novel that continually upends expectations.  Just when the reader thinks it’s a First Contact novel, Watson shifts gears.  An alien encounter?  A series of hallucinations?   The influence of a galactic supermind?  Manifestations of the collective unconscious?  The novel’s reality shifty underfoot, Watson moves through several iterations of explanation as each of the characters tries to make sense of their experiences. The reader simply cannot predict where the story is headed.  Watson juggling several alien balls, they never know whether it is all a farce, or if there is something deeper to it until the final pages—and even then…

Having a laugh at the practicalities of Freudian psychoanalysis, one aspect of Miracle Visitors is the psychology of alien encounters.  From hypnosis to psychoanalysis, intergalactic concepts of mind to concepts so esoteric as to warrant their own spirituality, Watson captures some of the zeitgeist of the time the novel was published.  From one perspective fully and fallibly human, while from another as speculative as fiction gets, it’s swirled into a psychedelic milieu.  The one-armed alien driving the massive red Thunderbird to the moon is an image that conjures the idea of parody, while the men in black (black suits, sunglasses, and memory spray included) who arrive at Suzie’s front door are completely within the believable realism of paranoia.  Tying together such events as the Portuguese Miracle of the Sun to alien abductions, Watson ends up making a broad yet hazy statement regarding the deeper consciousness of what lies behind mankind’s deepest visions—literally and figuratively.

In the end, Miracle Visitors is a disc-changer of a story.  What’s coming uncertain, Watson slips between tunes, trailing a stilted melody of consciousness, subconsciousness, the haziness of perception, and the human phenomena of group behavior through the concept of aliens and alien encounters.  A strange novel, it’s difficult to put your finger on a plot—to know what’s coming next in the mix, and what it lacks in 3D characters and direction, it makes up for conceptually.  All manner of theories and pseudo-theories are juxtaposed and paralleled as mankind attempts to confront the idea of alien unknown—for real or not, only the individual knows—without settling on one side of the fence.  Are there aliens, well, read the book.

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