Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Book Review: The History of Our World Beyond the Wave

I re-read a book last week, one which deserves to be rather better known that it is. The History of Our World Beyond the Wave is a fantasy of sorts, and a first novel, by R. E. Klein. Though it was, as I recall, very well reviewed when it came out in 1998, it was not, so far as I can tell, a commercial success. Perhaps that's not surprising for something as blessedly unclassifiable as this book.

The History is a fantasy of sorts, based on a situation which many might consider science fictional: In the first chapter a giant wave wipes out civilization across the entire globe, and leaves much of the earth under water. What follows, however, is not what those used to genre SF or F would expect at all. What Klein is attempting is perhaps best conveyed by the following set of excepts:
I looked up from my beer.
"What happened to the world?"
He reached into a deck drawer and withdrew a massive briar pipe and a worn leather pouch. Courteously offering me another pipe from the drawer, which I courteously refused, he spoke while he filled his pipe, tamping the tobacco as if punctuating his sentences.
"What happened? Why the ocean reared up on its hind legs as it was bound to do. So much was locked in reserve, frozen north and south in colossal refrigerators. Maybe it was an earthquake. maybe this old planet shifted on its axis. Maybe the whole blessed continent just sank. Does it really matter?"
"Matter, I said. "All the people--"
"Yes, many must have died, as we will sooner or later."
"Civilization?" I asked.
"It wasn't really civil, was it? Do you miss it?"
I made a movement as to speak, but he continued.
"Things don't last." He brought his cane down on the wooden floor. "Everything ends. We've had our Bach, our Socrates, our Saint Francis. They did their part to keep us sane and wholesome. Do you miss your childhood?"
I took another sip of beer.
...
He paused to relight his pipe. "Have you noticed that time is aberrant?"
"I tried to estimate the days since the Wave. I couldn't do it," I said.
He shook his head. "At first I marked a calendar, till the action seemed so futile that the threw the silly thing away." He swallowed a large mouthful and wiped his lips. "Things rarely operate in isolation. We have experienced catastrophic physical change; be prepared for metaphysical change. Your silver raft mate is an instance of what I mean -- or your head crabs. Anticipate more of the same. Expect to see sights stranger than you've imagined."
...
"I've read a lot of encounters with the so-called supernatural," I said. "No one takes them seriously."
"No," he said, "no one takes them seriously. The world is full of foreshadowings, of adumbrations and premonitions, of ghostly haunts and visitations -- but no one takes them seriously. They're all pressed down, veneered, overlaid by the lightbulbs and broad paved highways and wires that talk and tell people that existence is the accumulation of artificial lights and concrete highways and wires tingling with electricity. And people believe and feel safe and live sterile lives and lose the ability to think beyond man-made trash. But a big wave comes and washes away all the paved roads and shatters the lightbulbs, and the wires are silent, and the people are drowned. And the veneer dissolves like paste, and all the ghostly underpinnings rise to the surface, and you can't dispel them with bright lights, because you haven't got any; and you can't outrun them on your highways, because the highways are under water; and you can't talk them away with copper wires, because the electricity is gone.
"Soon you realize that the old-fashioned eerie beliefs are the real things, and all our boastful contrivances so much rubbish, and that you and everyone else have been hiding behind them, not so much because of the ghouls and the ghosts and the whole entourage of the twilight, but because you have been most terribly afraid of God.
"Hear me, that precious wave of ours has scoured this planet to the lithosphere, rinsing away all the drift and drabble and nasty little headachy things that drive men mad. No more income tax, inflation, and nagging uncertainties. No more lawyers, social workers and corporate executives. Hereafter people will live in a big way."
And it is this metaphysical change that the book is about. As survivors of the great wave congregate and begin to build a new society, and as the hero of the tale (a former English professor named Paul Sant) travels the strange world left behind by the wave, what we find is much more an examination of what we are, and how we got here, than any sort of realistic portrayal of a post disaster world. Those expecting a more realistic treatment will be about as disappointed as someone expecting C. S. Lewis' space trilogy to describe what it would really be like to travel to other planets.

The book is relatively short, and the plot itself is fairly simply, more episodic than linear. The literary style is a delight to read, and the book is packed with fascinating and at times disturbing images: A bear glimpsed at night wrestling with a giant squid on the seashore, legions of crabs whose photoluminescant shells look like human skulls marching up from the sea, strange and fierce amphibians named Gugs, a lemur who becomes a man to bring cynicism back to society, and a floating yellow Volkswagen which contains something utterly terrifying.

I highly recommend it.

6 comments:

TJR said...

Sounds interesting......Now if I only knew how to read.

Literacy-chic said...

Gee... How does one follow a comment like that? Er... Especially when one calls oneself "Literacy-chic"?

Chris said...

Hey there! I've been pointed to your review by Literacy-chic and I have to say this sounds like an awesome book. Great review by the way. I love this type of "fantasy"...the kind that takes a more inward look at humanity more than an outward look at a lavish world. Sounds great! Onto the "to be read" pile it goes!

Literacy-chic said...

I didn't quite mention earlier that I really wanted to read this now!! Did you know it was out of print? :P

Darwin said...

Well, it is out of print, but I believe there are some pretty cheap copies on Amazon. I got mine a month ago for around $10 plus shipping. (If you don't mind an ex-library copy, you can get one for a buck.)

And there are so many good books that are out of print. I can't not talk about them!

Nicholas said...

Thanks for reviewing a book that--I agree--should not be forgotten. I'll recommend two other books that, though out of print, deserve to be read by many more people (and though both are fantasies, they, like Klein's novel, deal with the metaphysical much more than one typically expects from the genre):

_Dragonfly_ by Frederic S. Durbin
_The High House_ by James Stoddard

--Nicholas Oz