Brandon Hackett: “The Book of Man”
It was 2008 when Botond Markovics, a.k.a. Brandon Hackett published his last book “Machines of God“. It was high time that he would make the fans of his works and the critics of the Hungarian SF scene happy again. As an individual who fits into both of these categories, I was immensely pleased after reading his new novel, “The Book of Man“, which was recently published by Agave Publishing House.
The upbeat of the story is interesting, although not entirely original. Mysterious extra-terrestrial beings kidnap thousands of people from all over the world, without any visible pattern of choice. After an eventful interstellar voyage these people suddenly find themselves in an alien environment, where they have to get used to the unusual living conditions, the tension rooting in basic human nature and, most importantly, the reason behind their abduction. The latter is, of course, one of the key plot points, and the author gives us just enough information so that the reader would not be able to figure out the truth way too soon. The thinning group of human beings slowly establishes a sort of organized life, trying to bring back the social relations back at their homes, but their abductors come back, and this time they want more…
As time passes, it is just natural that the readers learn more and more about these aliens, not to mention their motivations. The story unfolds through the viewpoints of a few major characters, most of them are human, but there is also an alien narrator. The author made a great decision by choosing this structure, for it gives us a chance to look at events from more than one point of view. The other great advantage of this solution is that we, as readers, know nothing more of the story than the characters themselves, so it is our task to decipher what is actually happening, and these assumptions can only be based on excessively alien and bizarre events and situations. It comes without saying that because of this, “The Book of Man” does not focus on action; one has to pay close attention while reading, for the events do not follow the usual and well-known patterns. And this is for the better, for there are alien beings moving the strings behind the scenes, with aims and thinking that are extremely different from the ones we are familiar with. This is also one of the great assets of the book: apart from a few anthropomorphic features, the aliens are actually alien, and not humans with tentacles or big compound eyes.
The most important of the narrators is Attila, who – in addition – is a child, and this brings a new taste and layer into the story. Apart from many other events, the readers can witness how this kid becomes a grown-up; however, there is a different sort of maturity story with wings and photosynthesizing skin… By the end of the novel, we may learn several things about the aliens, who did not came into existence by using the Darwinian way of evolution, like us, human beings did. It will also become clear that this separate and different evolutionary process is the reason behind every difference and the almost complete lack of understanding.
As I was reading this novel, “Eden” by Stanislaw Lem came to my mind on several occasions, which is in no way Brandon Hackett intended as a derogatory parallel. The encounter of two extremely different cultures was depicted extremely beautifully and believably – with all the misunderstandings and pain. But there is one aspect which is crucially different from Eden: after the two worlds have met, great and irreversible changes happen on both sides. The author managed to successfully tie up the story, yet the novel still has an open ending. It gives the whole book a sort of “some things end, some things begin”-feeling.
It goes without saying that “The Book of Man” is not a flawless piece of literature, some factual errors and limping, style-less sentences tend to break the magic of reading from time to time. What makes this extremely painful is that the book took so much time for the author to write, and these things could have been corrected with just a little bit of proofreading. My other problem stems from the fact that the book actually attempts to evoke reactions from all of our senses: there are sound-veils on the alien planet which emit ear-splitting sounds, not to mention that the aliens do not use voices, but scents to communicate. I grew weary of these voices and scents after a while, for these were described in a very detailed fashion. Apart from this, the extra-terrestrial creatures’ looks had so much diversity that sometimes it was hard to follow. Naturally there is a reason behind that, but all those descriptive sentences were sometimes very disturbing for me, as I prefer plot-, and character-oriented stories. And finally, the portrayal of the characters was not always perfect; this goes double for the villains, who ended up being way too archetypical.
Apart from all these, I am extremely happy with this book. Even if we take all its mistakes into consideration, we can say that no such piece of literature was ever written in Hungarian. Primarily I am referring here to the great concept and the elegantly unfolded story; these were things which can be considered fresh and new in the Hungarian literary field.
Finally I would like to point out that the book remains extremely enjoyable even after the first reading; it is more than suitable for more re-readings. The novel was built up of a surprising amount of layers, starting with the unbiased description of human nature, to high literature cross talks and the possible destinations of human evolution. The latter is one of the most important themes in the newest novels of Botond Markovics (which could be called as Human Trilogy at this point), and in “The Book of Man”, he still shows us an interesting, new direction. And to sum it all up, here’s a thought: in our small country, hard SF was a privileged area of Anglo-Saxon authors. But finally we have ourselves an author in this field, one who can make a high-standard piece of work in this subgenre. I sincerely hope that this book is merely the first one in the forthcoming long line of Hungarian hard sci-fi novels.
It is recommended, and not only for SF-fans.
Translated into english by Ferenc Benkő of the original hungarian review : A cikk magyarul az alábbi linken érhető el: http://sfmag.hu/2012/06/11/brandon-hackett-az-ember-konyve/
•The two previous novels of the author were “The Posthuman Decision” and “Machines of God”.
•The blog of the author : http://hackett.sfblogs.net/
Zoltán László : “Once Upon a Time”
Karsa Harlan would be an ordinary human being, only if. If he didn’t lose some of his memories from time to time, if he knew anything of his ancestry or his parents, if he was not named named after a famous sci-fi author, and if he was not working at the Pathology. Among all of the above, he only has a problem with the Pathology, and, by the way, even all these “if”-s cannot stop him from living a whole-heartedly everyday life. As such, he craves adventure, but not really that much.
He is the sort of guy who always has something hanging above his head, but these things do not do any harm up to the point when the last small thing arrives, and then everything goes awry. As such, during his next memory loss, all he gets is a bad date, a lost motorcycle (which he payed in parts), but at the same time, stranger and stranger visitors knock on his door, and thanks to their beneficial activities, a world invisible to all simple human beings unfolds for Harlan.
Zoltán László put himself to the test in several subgenres of fantastic literature, for example, cyberpunk (“Hyperballad”), high fantasy mixed with sci-fi (“Nagate”), or hard sci-fi on time travel (“Flux”). His newest novel, “Once Upon a Time“, was published by Agave Publishing House during the Week of Books Festival, and in this, he takes a glance at the genre of urban fantasy with great enthusiasm – at the first sight, the only familiar thing is Hungary as the location, which can be found both in “Hyperballad” and “Flux”. And maybe Karsa Harlan himself, who, just like the previous protagonists of Zoltán László, simply goes with the tide, and, in the meanwhile, the agents of powerful, faceless corporations push him in front of themselves, just like some sort of pawn.
But there is another gentleman whose stylistic accessories can be felt next to Zoltán László’s, and he is Neil Gaiman. My guess would be that this novel is just like “Neverwhere” if it would take place in Budapest instead of London. All the nooks and corners have miracles inside, there is a herbalswoman behind the waterfall at Westend, and a giant holds the Parliament in his hand. The inhabitants of this strange world are all under some sort of gaimanian spell, from the goblin in the wheelchair to Vago, the administrator, who looks just like some sort of bureaucratic remnant of the system before the regime change, not to mention the piquant mixture of Mr Croup and Mr. Vandemar. Even Harlan has a close resemblance to Richard Mayhew or Fat Charlie.
I must admit that because of my expectation, I suffered from a sort of double vision during the first few pages. On one hand, I enjoy reading stories on Gaiman’s fallible, small-time characters, yet I despise the same treats in a Hungarian character, for there were many pieces of local art which successfully made me hate them. Yet Zoltán László shows pretty soon that the two are basically the same, the only keyword is “how”; one can feature a local everyman on a gaimanian level without making him look petty. All characters are equally well-written, and a special praise goes for the female cast.
The same thing goes with the elements of Hungarian folklore, for the seven-headed dragon merges into our everyday reality just like the animal characters of fables in Gaiman’s works. And now I got a strong itch to list all the Hungarian fairy tale elements, but I worry that I might ruin the pleasure of discovery. There is only one part which, at first sight, seems way too sci-fi-ish, yet as time goes by, it merges in well with the rest of the fantastic. Not to mention that Gaiman himself experimented with crossing different genres; just think of “Sandman”.
It goes without saying that dry humour really goes well with the world depicted by László. For make no mistake, this is still a novel by Zoltán László, it doesn’t turn into a Gaiman epigone. He does not copy the ingredients of the English gentleman, he only takes some and shapes them to fit into his own style. And now that we’re at it, I remember that Zoltán László put Neverwhere into one of his annual list of five best books with a little addendum that he did have a disagreement with the ending. This is clearly visible, and although I do not want to spoil anything, but the readers should not expect some sort of big twist. I myself prefer this closure in its simplicity to the endings of the previous novels by László: straightforward, honest, positive and, most of all, filled with self-confidence.
What else to say? If you enjoyed the previous pieces written by Zoltán László, you should try this one out, too. If you were captivated by the previous Hungarian folklore-fantasies, such as Lead Forest, you must acquire this. If you like Neil Gaiman, don’t miss this one. Or if you are simply interested in a good native fantastic novel, for “Once Upon a Time” deserves to be mentioned on the same page as “Stardust” or several other foreign novels, and the author didn’t even had to use his pseudonym Brian Ephrum.
However, it’s not the Hungarian name on the cover or the book’s usage of local folklore what makes this piece of literature really Hungarian. But simply because the waterfall at Westend will never look the same after this. And this already made reading this worthwhile.
Translated into english by Ferenc Benkő of the original hungarian review : Az ismertető magyarul az alábbi linken olvasható el: http://sfmag.hu/2013/06/11/laszlo-zoltan-egyszervolt-gaimani-vilagkep-es-a-magyar-valosag/
Reposted by the kind permission of SFmag.hu of the two reviews :
Thank you !