Howard V. Hendrix,
Empty Cities of the Full Moon
(Ace, 2001)

Empty Cities of the Full Moon blends hard science fiction with a thoughtful and illuminating tale that grapples with the question of what it means to be human.

A third of the way into the 21st century, a pandemic rages, wiping out swathes of human civilizations and transforming many of the survivors. The plague manifests as a driving urge to drum and dance, more so during full moons, so initially it is perceived as a widespread fad. But when the drummers fall into comatose states marked by intensive dreaming, stigmata and shape-shifting, the population realizes that it is in deep trouble and that the world as they knew it is gone forever.

Three decades later, the planet is sparsely populated with Trufolk, the shape shifting Wer folk and the biologically engineered Merfolk who guard and defend the New Bahamian Polity founded and governed by erstwhile billionaire Cameron Spires. Spires set up this refuge when the world went mad, and now the residents receive longevity treatments. Anyone exhibiting Wersign is automatically exiled in an effort to keep the plague out of the community.

A handful of exiles from the Bahamas -- "abjurors" who chose exile as well as some who had it chosen for them -- wend their way up the eastern seaboard, searching for answers about the plague and the truth about the Werfolk and their tendency to be short-lived. This journey is transformational for the characters involved, altering their concepts of life and death. While the physical journey is fairly linear, the interior quest each character makes is a vibrant thread in a complex whole.

Hendrix employs past tense in the earlier years and present tense in the later years, which heightens the immediacy of the tale. The characters tie together past and present with their roles in and reactions to the pandemic and the choices they make in the post-pandemic society.

In the beginning, Hendrix establishes parallel universes: Universe A and Universe A Prime. One character, John Drinan is born in Universe A, but his parents die in a crash before he can be conceived and born in Universe A Prime. His space ship crosses into Universe A Prime, sending him and his dog Oz on a personal odyssey that not only parallels the journey the other characters make but is enmeshed and rooted in their quest. Furthermore, the reader might assume that Universe A is "our" universe -- but upon reflection that is not necessarily true.

This is a dense and complex novel, and much of the scientific jargon slid past my eyes with little or no comprehension. Often, I had the feeling that I was missing some background, but these considerations are minor in the face of Hendrix's consummate storytelling skill. The tale is compelling and thought-provoking, and the characters are alive and vivid. Rarely have I read a book that makes me think so much about its content. Hendrix's writing is rich in philosophical constructs and effective literary device, and while the reader's brain might boggle at comprehending the multiple levels unfolded, it will also rise to the challenge.

[ by Donna Scanlon ]
Rambles: 5 January 2002



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