Up to Eric's Home Page To Index Wed Jan 31 16:04:55 EST 1990

Raymond's Reviews #4

%T Neverness
%A David Zindell
%I Bantam Spectra
%D July 1989
%O paperback, $4.95
%P 552

(Note: this novel is nearly two years old now and thus falls outside what I usually consider `current' -- but I am going to talk it up here anyhow because it's just been reissued, the author is a relative unknown, and it's so good)

One of modern SF's most persistent tropes, it seems, is the idea of the starpilot-as-magus. The field is full of stories in which pilots are wild talents cyborged or biologically enhanced into some kind of mystical union with their ships, or into an ESP-like perception of a gorgeous and complex otherspace. Frank Herbert's Guildsmen, Vonda McIntyre's heartless Aztecs, the pilot/alchemists of Melissa Scott's Silence Leigh trilogy, Gerard Conway's Mindship, Jeffrey Carver's Starrigger's Way...one could cite many other examples, perhaps beginning with Cordwainer Smith's epochal stories Scanners Live In Vain, Drunkboat, and The Game of Rat And Dragon.

The starpilot-as-magus may be the perfect mythic figure for a technological age -- the special individual who, alone, can focus and realize the potentials of technology by achieving ecstatic union with it. It is no accident that the experience of the starpilot is often portrayed in these stories as partaking of an unmatchable, orgasmic intensity; in this way, the author can merge human hungers for transcendence and catharsis with new, science-created themes of starflight and technological triumph. In these stories, the pilot is truly deus ex machina -- a god come out of the machine.

In David Zindell's first novel, Neverness, he develops this idea with such power, intricacy and brilliance that all the previous treatments are simply eclipsed. Though the novel has other vast themes and gives us a look at several bizarre and original cultures and a cast of remarkable characters, its heart is in the piloting sequences and its portrait of the Order of Mystic Mathematicians.

I won't try to summarize the plot here; a bare-bones synopsis could not possibly do it justice. Several of the philosophical ideas woven into the plot deserve essays all by themselves. The inventiveness of this book is extravagant; some of the things Zindell tosses off as throwaway lines would have been milked for entire novels by lesser writers. It has epic sweep; it has sense of wonder by the ton load; it has high tragedy and joy and horror and sex and violence and a few moments of low comedy.

Indeed, if this novel has a fault it's that it's too brilliant. It reminds me in this way of John Varley's short stories, from which I learned that having one's mind blown every several pages can be quite fatiguing! And you may not (in fact, almost certainly will not) agree with all the ethical premises of the novel's Civilized Worlds.

No matter. This book earns an official Raymond's Review Rave; buy it, read it, give it to your friends, talk David Zindell up...do anything to keep the man writing! If he can consistantly compose at the level of quality represented by Neverness, I think he is guaranteed a place among the giants of SF.

Up to Eric's Home Page To Index Wed Jan 31 16:04:55 EST 1990

Eric S. Raymond <esr@snark.thyrsus.com>