Lately I’ve been reading enough SF from small independent presses for a review series. And so over the next few weeks it will be Indy SF Month here at The Finch and Pea, which will include one of the recent nominees for this year’s Philip K. Dick award, a fascinating, non-horror zombie apocalypse from one of my new favorite small presses, and a collection of fascinating stories by a long-time local (St. Louis) SF author.
First in line is M.J.A. Watney’s Kybernos, a self-published work that was a quarter-finalist in 2014 Amazon’s Breakthrough Novel Award competition. Watney provided me with an ARC of this intriguing work, which, like a good fraction of the indy SF we’ll discuss in the upcoming weeks, is better described as speculative rather than science fiction.
Kybernos is part of a tradition of SF stories that play with the direction of time, not time travel so much as questions of reversibility and causality. Hard SF usually comes to mind when we think of this theme – Gregory Benford’s great classic Timescape explored the idea of trying to change the present by sending messages to the past via tachyons, faster-than-light particles that travel backwards in time. Unlike Timescape, Kybernos is not hard SF, but it explores some of the same questions about alternate time trajectories and the reversal of cause and effect.
Here’s a rough into to the plot: Charles, Bertram, and Anita are three strangers who are muddling through their meaningless lives. For reasons they don’t quite understand, they find themselves spending a summer in the Polish city of Lublin. Charles is a wealthy and aimless young playboy who came with his rugby buddies to Lublin, his second-choice destination for a pre-wedding stag week. Anita is a frustrated and bullied teen who, after an unsuccessful attempt at suicide that resulted in what seemed like a strange hallucination, has come to Poland to spend the summer with her elderly aunt. Bertram is a bored, middle-aged physics teacher, attending the tedious conference of the International Society of Physics Teachers. Summer in Poland isn’t looking promising for anyone.
Also visiting Lublin that summer is a secretive club called the Wilderschen, comprised of “the richest and most powerful people in the world.” They are holding their meeting in one of Lublin’s grand hotels, where Anita is working a summer job. A suspicious explosion takes out both the hotel and the Wilderschen, but luckily spares Anita, who is rescued from the rubble by Charles and his rugby buddies. They meet Bertram, who is drawn to the scene of the disaster, and the whole group heads to a bar to unwind. At that point, things start to weird, and the three characters find themselves in a much more dangerous world where the past can suddenly change, and chance events aren’t as meaningless — or irreversible — as they seem.
In Timescape, changing the past is achieved with painstaking scientific work, but Kybernos takes a more fabulist approach to the problem. There is a venerable tradition of stories in SF which what seem like ordinary events are in fact the consequences of acts by players working behind the scenes, advancing some agenda of their own. These players can be supernatural creatures or humans who managed to tap into some bizarre powers — David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks and Philip Dick’s disturbing The Cosmic Puppets are two notable entries in this field. These stories make the consequential but random coincidences of the world take on added, and sometimes malevolent significance.
Kybernos works in a similar vein, but with a fresh and unusual angle. The word kybernos, as the book notes, comes from the Greek meaning “to direct, rule, guide, to steer.” It’s the same root word that inspired “cybernetics,” Norbert Wiener’s term for the science of control systems. As Charles, Bertram, and Anita journey through the city and countryside they try to figure out what, if anything, is controlling the events of their strange summer — a summer whose odd happenings include a possible plague from outer space and an S & M session in a mountaintop cabin. Scenes are rewound, tweaked, and played again. Watney often employs an almost-verbatim repetition of passages as alternate versions of episodes replay themselves – an effective and appropriately disorienting technique, though sometimes I felt that the development of some of the themes and plot threads was a bit clipped as a consequence.
Setting the story in Poland was a shrewd move. Poland is an ideal place for this story, recognizably European, but just bit exotic, a place where strange things can happen. Watney clearly relishes the unusual food, the unpronounceable words, the beautiful old cities, the rustic alpine resorts, and the busy medieval marketplaces.
It’s hard to say much more about the book without getting into spoilers, so I’ll end this with a link to the author’s website, which explains some of the references in the book, and a brief excerpt, courtesy of M.J.A. Watney.
And now, while he and his mates had been quietly sitting under this baobab tree, harmlessly boozing the morning away, some joker had bloody well gone and blown up a hotel across the way, showering glass in his face. I ask you: how’s that for Polish hospitality?
Rodney leaned over.
‘I suppose we have to do something,’ he remarked unenthusiastically.
‘Do we have to?’ wearily answered Charles, who was wondering how a piece of glass had managed to get into his beer.
‘I rather think so. There are people hurt.’
‘Oh well, if you insist.’
Charles sighed, and pushed his can away. Anyway, drinking beer with glass in it would tear his insides apart, he knew that. Better to start again with some really serious drinking this evening. Time now to show the locals how the British behave in a crisis. Might teach them a thing or two.
He looked around at the others.
‘Ready everybody?’ Charles asked.
Rodney nodded, James nodded, Alex nodded, George nodded, Benedict nodded, Piers nodded and Matthew nodded.
‘Okay. Let’s do it.’
The eight chums got up as one and brushed off the last shards of glass. Then, like the rugby forwards they in fact were (but only on Saturday afternoons and strictly amateur), they charged towards the smouldering wreckage of the Majestatyczny Hotel as if it were the opposition’s try-line, intent, for perhaps the very first time in their miserable lives, on actually doing something for somebody else, hard though that may be to imagine.