Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #226: The Commons by Matthew Hughes

I have to admit it: I've gotten really lazy in my reading life. I've said repeatedly that Matthew Hughes is one of my favorite writers -- and it actually is true, not just something I like to say -- and yet it took me a decade to get to this 2007 fix-up of his Guth Bandar stories.

In my defense, there are a lot of books in the world, and I have intentions of reading multiple thousands of them. (And actually own multiple hundreds, which should be a subset of the books I intend to read -- though we all know that's not how it actually works.) I might have had a copy of this before my 2011 flood: I lost a lot of books then, and don't remember what all of them were [1].

I also vaguely remember thinking at the time that the premise of this series of stories wasn't quite as appealing as Hughes's earlier Archonate work -- I don't remember exactly why I thought that, but I think it had something to do with seeing a vague description and thinking it sounded a bit woo-woo. [2]

Anyway: The Commons is a fix-up of six stories about Guth Bandar, at first a neophyte noonaut from the Institute of Historical Inquiry in the vastly distant future of Old Earth, where everything has been known, forgotten at least once, and rediscovered again. The Institute mapped the noosphere -- the landscape of the collective unconscious, which we all enter in dreams and trained explorers can navigate at will -- ages ago, and continues on in the way that academic organizations do, even though their purpose was achieved long before. So it trains explorers to understand and map the noosphere, even as it teaches that there can be nothing new to map, and any scholarly work will be on very precisely defined small topics that have certainly been covered many times before in the previous thousands of years.

Guth's career, though, is one of discovery: the noosphere, or "the Commons," as it is vulgarly known, still has secrets, and he will be the one to learn them. And, of course, if on one side you have a large and powerful academic organization that has codified all of the knowledge in its area for hundreds of generations, and on the other side you have one young and eager researcher who claims that everything they know is flawed...well, how do you think that conflict is going to go?

So Guth starts off as a promising novice in the Institute, on a major fieldwork mission with his mentor, in the first story incorporated here. But he learns something thought to be impossible -- that it's possible to break through from the Commons of one intelligent species to that of another, causing serious mental disruptions to sapients on both sides -- and loses that mentor to mental instability because of it. In the next couple of stories, Guth is still advancing in the Institute, but not as strongly as he was before, and the weight of revelations eventually stymies his progress and makes his goals impossible.

On the other side, that collective unconsciousness may have a need for Guth -- which is frightening in two ways. First, being a thing that a greater power wants to use rarely works out well. Second, the collective unconsciousness is supposed to be unconscious -- according to everything the Institute knows, it can't know or want anything.

But it does, and it has plans for Guth Bandar. They will roll out overt the course of his life, as chronicled in the stories that Hughes has mildly edited to turn into a novel here.

Hughes's Archonate stories are witty and amusing, usually with a world-weary, fatalistic air -- they're set in an Age where everything that could happen, save only the end of all things, has already happened. Guth's tales are more active and adventurous than most of those, given that they take place mostly in the Commons, a world where mythic stories retell themselves every day, and noonauts can get caught up in them. One of the slyer joys of this book is recognizing the "ancient myth-patterns" that Guth finds himself in as folktales or classic literature.

Until the last novella, Guth is mostly in the Commons, and so Hughes doesn't have much scope for his love arch dialogue -- which I did miss, a little. But that may make The Commons an easier way into Hughes's great post-historical work for many readers: it's full of incident and adventure, and not quite as mannered as some of his work it. (Again: I love the mannered stuff better, but I realize that my tastes may be uncommon.)

[1] It's hard to have personal memories of everything when you lose about 250 linear feet of books all at once.

[2] Woo-woo is a technical publishing term, used to describe books mostly bought by very nice and terribly gullible people that explain how to tune their chakras and align their pyramids and avoid the body-fluid-stealing aliens of the Bermuda Triangle and hum their way to cosmic peace. You know the kind.

1 comment:

-blessed b9, Catalyst4Christ said...

Actually, G.B.H was a hardcore punk
band from the neck of England
(Gratitious Bodily Harm - acronym).
pieceOworthless bitOinfo,
me wee laddy.

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