Jamil Nasir,
Distance Haze
(Bantam, 2000)

In this marvellous book, Jamil Nasir creates a character whom he makes the embodiment of two fairly incompatible world views. The first contends that awe -- communion with the world, fate or God (what could be termed "the numinous") -- is essential to an understanding of the world. The other view makes the scientific method the sole arbiter of what is real.

Wayne Dolan is a man in trouble -- middle-aged and suffering writer's block, estranged from his wife and rapidly becoming so from their two small children. Yet while suffering these cruel blows of fate he nevertheless aspires to a higher, better reality, one he continually strives to realise. Enter a wealthy scientific institute populated by eminent scientists investigating the neurochemistry of religious experience. Although a writer of fiction, Dolan accepts an assignment to write about the institute and its work.

And so we enter the dichotomous world of hushed lecture theatres addressed by Nobel prize-winning scientists, and dim seldom-visited library aisles from whose shelves ancient knowledge is sought in dust-covered books. Dreams, their meaning and portentousness for the waking world, of course play a big part, as anyone who has read Nasir's Tower of Dreams might expect. However, the approach in Distance Haze is altogether more rigorous. The institute scientists Dolan interviews serve to keep his feet on the ground, even as he dreams and has other numinous experiences.

Dolan comes to realise that the two apparently opposite poles of the scientific and the numinous may form two ends of a continuum. He reconciles the contradictions by giving equal weight in his mind to the objective reality that is all about him and to the primacy of the individual experience in defining that reality. Nasir's writing is certainly up to the difficult task of keeping his character balanced on this high wire. Perhaps epitomising the risks taken by the author in this regard is the unblinkingly flinty description he gives of Dolan making love to a physically handicapped drug-addicted prostitute with whom he has fallen in love. The point here isn't that "love is blind" or that "beauty in the eye of the beholder"; instead, the reader is invited to experience what it is like to hold two contradictory things in mind at the same time.

Within the plot of this novel is a scientist who has in the past done irresponsible experiments and who wishes, by means of high-tech biological science, to mess with everyone's mind (for the good of humanity, of course). With this aspect of the story the author successfully employs hard-SF extrapolation and speculation to make plausible the ending, one in which Dolan sees his existential problem to have been rooted in his brain's perception of the world, and what is more, for that problem to be now largely solved.

Distance Haze is the tale of Dolan's journey, an inward one which seeks release from the meaningless that a scientific worldview can engender. His path to transcendence is not smooth or gradual but punctuated with uncertainty and no small amount of middle-age sexual angst. The exposition of the scientific ideas confronted by Dolan on his journey, along with the description of their incorporation into the melting pot that is his mind and personality, make this a powerful work of SF.

[ by Conor O'Connor ]

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