Monday, November 20, 2006

Postapocalyptic Highway II: Review of Celestis by Paul Park

I can't help but feel I've let my faithful readers down with that last review. Here is a better novel on a similar theme, souped up from the archives.

Grade: B+
Paul Park takes humanity on a much longer trip, out beyond the solar system to our last and only outpost. We accompany a linguist, who made the voyage of many years to study the aboriginal life found there, the only other intelligent species known. There are actually two indiginous races on the planet--the more common variety is roughly humanoid, with soft, protean features, a biological slave race which is treated by the humans as such with little reservation. The master species (the linguist, Simon, is particularly interested in how the master and slave communicate) has been all but wiped out as a nuisance, and as a competitor for the people's place as biological superior. Over time, with biological imperative (and often with convincing surgery), the slaves have adapted themselves to the human presence. The planetary colony is less a masturbatory science fantasy than it is an excuse to make an earthlike (twentieth century American) society in a place far from home. It is, of course, a vehicle to examine us, and, like any attempt worth the effort, it's centered on an engaging story.

The beginning of the novel has the protagonist slouching his way through the colonial theme park of a settlement while the author coyly hints at mankind's current state of affairs ("how long ago doesn't matter"). Park escapes cliché by putting us into a credible day-to-day, giving us a feel for Simon's misanthropic distraction and for Katherine's (the female protagonist's) genuine desire to be a Real Girl. It seems to coalesce toward some anti-slavery mediocrity. The two protagonists, each of them outsiders in their own community, find each other, but what will they learn? It takes a few chapters for Park to establish this question, and then, to answer it, he chucks any convention aside.

What follows is an impressive piece of work. In captivity, Katherine's medical treatments wear off, and obeying her biological impulses, she and her lover flee along the rocky path to the dark and native portions of the planet. As they get deeper in, Katherine loses grip on humanity and rediscovers the ghosts of her ancestors. Amid the gripping drama of a chase, a disturbing unraveling occurs. The reader is taken on an expert and gradual shift of viewpoint from human to alien, from our own blundering language of ideals and dreams, to something subtle, complex, and doomed. Man, meanwhile, diminishes in stature over the course of the trek. It's gradually revealed what happened to earth (nothing special, we merely ate it bare), and how our last empty effort is inflicting the same fate on a species that was, but for us, successful. Simon, our most sympathetic human, can't do better than project his own blind insecurities and clumsy hopes as he too wrecks the place. It's bleak, and pierces mankind's high motives right through to our black, broken heart. It's an allegory as unflinching as it is damning.

Park takes too long--half the book--to prepare for this journey, too much time to set up our expectations. But he knocks them down with such brilliant passion, it's worth holding out. Just don't expect to be uplifted.

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