Sunday, January 20, 2013

Daniel F. Galouye's DARK UNIVERSE #OneBookAtATime

It's tricky to do a whole lot of world-building in just 154 pages, even if that world, as in Daniel F. Galouye's Dark Universe, is small and confined by nature. The trick is to be telegraphic, to let every line convey something about the plot, characters and setting all at once -- or to just let the world building take care of itself, let the reader's imagination do that work. I realized, as I read through this, that I prefer the latter.

I mention this because right from the first page, Galouye made the choice I favor less, and went a little overboard, to the point of raising goose eggs on my noggin with his invented slang and cursing and expressions of folk belief. This is a post-apocalyptic (nuclear war), underground world, and, as the title might just suggest, one in which there is maybe not so much light, but that does not mean that every other word coming from a character's mouth needs to be "Radiation this" and "Light that." To say nothing of substituting "period" for "day" in the context in which "gestation" means, more or less, "year." How could I not snicker like an adolescent?

It all reminded me more than a little bit of the South Park episode in which the Otters and Ostriches and other warring atheist types would use "science" as a substitute for "god" in common locutions. Oh my science!

And speaking of that, that same episode of South Park featured one Richard Dawkins, who named this book as his pick for "brilliant sci-fi that got away". And one can see why it would be dear tobhis heart, for the novel's hero, Jared, spends most of the story calling his people's cherished shibboleths into question and facing the consequences. Well, of course that's why he would like it.

To focus on either of these qualities -- annoying overuse of invented locution or hero-as-heretic -- is to miss what's amazing about this novel, though. I return to the world building, for Galouye has created a philosopher's delight of a universe, in which no one can recall what light or darkness actually are, and everyone has come to rely on other senses -- mostly hearing and smell -- to get around, to grow food (a must-be-engineered fungus they call manna that provides not only food but fiber and building material as well), to fight off predators (giant mutated "soubats"), and to perceive each other. As is legendary about the blind, these other senses are exquisitely highly developed in the dwellers of Galouye's underground world -- except among an offshoot tribe, the "Zivvers" who, it turns out, can see into the infrared spectrum, and are thus the only people in this story who actually use their eyes. They are rare exceptions to the rule here, though; everyone else echolocates, using "clickstones" and a giant central "echo-caster" to perceive their small world.

Galouye put a lot of thought and care into developing these cultures, and achieved something frankly marvelous thereby. That the plot of the story is a hackneyed coming-of-age/what-really happened narrative doesn't matter. Galouye succeeds in immersing the reader in a sightless cave of a universe, and in the process leads her to think about something she has always taken for granted, is taking for granted even as she reads his words: light ("silent sound" Jared calls it at first, struggling for words to describe the phenomenon to himself), and what it might be like to encounter it for the first time after generations without it.

Who would have thought a retelling of Plato's Allegory of the Den could be so absorbing?

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