Up to Eric's Home Page To Index Wed Sep 19 12:42:14 EDT 1990

Raymond's Reviews #90

%T The Last Legends of Earth
%A A. A. Attanasio
%I Bantam Spectra
%D September 1990
%O paperback, US$4.95
%P 450
%G 0-553-28601-3

A. A. Attanasio's latest book, last of a loosely connected set called the `Radix Tetrad', is a brilliant, epic novel that falls frustratingly short of being an SF masterpiece.

Two billion years after Sol went nova, an entity called the Rimstalker builds a solar system and stocks it with the recreated humans and plants and animals of the many eras of lost Earth. The eight bright worlds that circle the sun-machine Lod and the seven twilit satellites of the black hole Saor are webbed together by `lynks', hyperspatial transit tubes. The whole is designed as bait for the zotl, spiderlike enemies of the Rimstalker who feed on pain. Against this weird background, baroque and intricate human cultures rise and fall; individuals seek their various destinies; and a few -- a very few -- seek to transcend the limits placed on them by the conflicts of the gods.

Sounds promising, right? And the writing is gorgeous, too. The trouble with this novel is that Attanasio isn't an SF writer in the most important sense -- he lacks either the knowledge or the motivation necessary to make his world internally consistent and logically convincing. What scientific rationalization there is in the book is annoyingly superficial, and often seems to be there more there for its word-poetry effect than because it's structurally important.

The results are a peculiarly jarring mixture of lyricism and transparent doubletalk. We are told, for example, that the zotl feed on "pain androgens" -- but with no explanation of why such an advanced species doesn't simply synthesize them in ton lots rather than going to the expense and risk of preying on other sentients. The Rimstalker's homeworld is represented as a ribbon-shaped `range' just outside a black-hole remnant of the primordial monobloc, existing in a higher energy regime that unifies the four fources into `magravity', and yet we are told that the Rimstalker grew up on a farm and is roughly humanoid (down to such details as having fingers!). And these are just two of the more glaring bloopers!

Attanasio has a fine mythopoeic imagination, all right, but what he's done is lousy SF. What's frustrating is that the problems could have been fixed with only minor changes to the real matter of the novel and no lessening of its good qualities. With a close critical reading by a hard-SF-oriented author or editor before publication and a little flexibility on the author's part, this could have been a major work comparable in many ways to Dan Simmons's Hugo-winning Hyperion, or James Morrows's The Continent Of Lies, or David Zindell's Neverness.

As it is, the result is irritatingly flawed from any genre fan's point of view. The scientifically ignorant will love it, though, and it might be a good book to hand those humanities types who've been told SF is all formulaic, badly written crap.

Finally, I must say that even though Attanasio bears authorial responsibility and thus the primary fault, I think some editor at Bantam deserves a serious rebuke for not having arranged the "reality check" this book needed. Sloppy science may not be worth the effort to see corrected in a book that's another novelfull of genre yardage -- but this one could have been so much more for so little effort.

Up to Eric's Home Page To Index Wed Sep 19 12:42:14 EDT 1990

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