George Turner,
Down There in Darkness
(Tor, 1999)

Because Down There in Darkness deals with life as lived in a possible future, it is clearly a science fiction novel. However, irrespective of this setting the manner in which it explores the depths of the human mind would alone mark it as SF. George Turner, in this novel published after his death in 1997, has skillfully interwoven both these themes to great effect.

The view of the future is a bleak one with overpopulation and widespread industrial automation leading to environmental degradation and mass unemployment, which in turn leads to institutionalised poverty, rigid class division and general human misery. This is the world, or at least the part of it that is Australia, that Harry Ostrov introduces us to in the first of the many first-person narratives that comprise this novel. Harry is a policeman, and he and his street-wise friend Gus get drawn into what initially seems a straightforward case. Thirty years previously a famous painter, Brian Warlock, had been the willing subject of an experiment whereby he was sent into Isolation (a state in which all sensory input to the brain was blocked by means of electronically induced hypnosis). Since that time he had remained alive but impervious to all efforts at awakening him. Now, another attempt is to be made amid great scientific interest in what Warlock might report on the workings of the mind. Harry's boss, for reasons that are unclear, suspects criminal involvement, and so Harry is detailed to attend the awakening.

Once this scene is set things happen with a rapidity and complexity reminiscent of the crime novel, with Harry and Gus falling afoul of powerful industrialist Dr. Wishart and his geneticist granddaughter Valda, as well as the meglomaniacal founder of a fundamentalist religion. Up to this point we have been shown the dystopian world by means of entries in the personal journals of Harry and Gus, but now the narrative takes a twist. Employing the SF tropes of rejuvenation therapy and cryosuspension, the author allows these same two protagonists to observe the world after a gap of 100 years, and also adding contemporary testimony.

After this length of time in involuntary suspension what greets Harry and Gus on revival is, firstly, a planet that is host to a completely different human society, and secondly, courtesy of multiple rejuvenation therapies, the two people most responsible for the current state of homo sapiens -- Dr. Wishart and Valda. Wishart is a hard-nosed scientist who has no interest in the parapsychology of the original Isolation experiments, despite the tantalising descriptions given by some experimental subjects of coming into contact, while "down there," with other minds and thoughts. However, these same experiments are understandably fresh in the newly revived mind of policeman Harry Ostrov, who is now very angry indeed. The emergence of Harry and Gus into this New Age acts as a catalyst so that those old experiments which used electronically induced hypnosis to journey to the depths of Mind now react explosively with ancient, but strangely similar Australian aboriginal native beliefs. Thus a wild card is introduced into the scientifically planned New Age.

In the 1845 Edgar Allan Poe story The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar, a dying man is hypnotised in the hope that at the point of death or beyond he might impart some piece of occult knowledge; the reader is made impatient to discover what might be revealed. As with Poe (a progenitor of SF), so too with Down There in Darkness. The mind and its destiny, despite 150 years of scientific advancement in the area, is still, as in Poe's time, so much the unknown frontier that it attracts writers of speculative fiction whose exploration must ultimately be expressed in poetical terms. This may disappoint readers who seek for hard scientific speculations, but with this novel, as with many things, it is the journey and not the arrival that is important. My guess is that readers will consider their journey through Down There in Darkness to have been more than worthwhile.

[ by Conor O'Connor ]

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