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by Stephen Palmer

(Cosmos Books, $17.95, 302 pages, paperback, published 2004.)

Halfway through the twenty-first century, aliens invade the Earth. But this is no simple physical invasion; these aliens have musical cover scansensibilities different from our own, and the transcribed melody of our electronic financial transactions is one that grates on their ears. Their first act is to infiltrate the world through electronic music, and their second is to catastrophically "remix" the global economy. As urban society collapses, a small band of underground artistes embarks on a quest to find the musical essence of humanity -- a music that the aliens won't be able to subvert.

Hallucinating is ... um ... odd. By the author's admission, this is a book aimed at "festival people ... alternative types, hippies, travellers, freethinkers and the like" as much as at SF readers; more so, I'd say. The narrative voice is quite obviously pitched at festival folk, and the cameos from (now octogenerian) members of bands like Ozric Tentacles and Shpongle are intended to please quite a specific crowd. This I don't have a problem with, but I did feel that the cameos were a bit indulgent -- too much so when one electronic artiste by the name of Steve Palmer puts in an appearance ... Shame, sir, shame. Having all your favourite musicians grab the mike at Glastonbury for five minutes' jamming apiece in one big orgiastic sesh would, I suppose, be a good thing. Or at least a diverting spectacle. I'm not sure that having them pop up in bit-parts in a novel works on quite the same level, though.

That the collapse of the global electronic economy might leave civilisation in the hands of alternative/underground culture is certainly plausible, but it does make it a little difficult for those of us entrenched in the electronic economy to identify with the book's heroes and the world they inhabit. Nulight, the central character, in particular starts the book as an intolerant extremist, and doesn't seem to change much during the course of his adventures; it falls to Kappa, Nulight's lover, who is more often prepared to meet people halfway, to engage the casual reader's sympathy. The other major character in the novel is Master Sengel, who manipulates events largely from the sidelines, and whose changing appearance means that we never entirely get to know him. These elusive figures are appropriate touchstones for a counterculture in which identity is more fluid and self-determined than in mainstream society, but less than helpful mediators between the story and yer average SF-reading punter.

The story has its faults too. On the third page of the book Nulight abruptly decides that aliens are responsible for the autonomous electronic music in a Berlin nightclub. There's no lead-up, he just reaches this conclusion in one jump. The aliens themselves, by remaining aloof for much of the book, don't really provide a solid enough opposition for our heroes to push against; they're more of an ideological threat than an immediate physical danger, reactive rather than proactive in quashing the humans' efforts to repel them. In Part Four, Nulight and Kappa run up against an emergent governmental authority in Lyme Regis, a faction that is prepared to actively hunt them down and oppress them, and this ups the stakes nicely; I felt that this gave the story a certain drive that had been lacking up till that point.

However, there are definite strengths too. The concept of aliens perceiving our global economy as a discordant affront to their harmonic worldview is a good one, and Hallucinating as a whole offers a thoughtful examination of what music is and what it means to us on a spiritual level. In the course of their quest, in Part Three of the book our heroes spend a year on the road, gathering signature songs for each of the eight pagan festivals, and this provides not only a diverting whistle-stop tour of the pagan year, but a deeper study of the relationship between music and the rhythm of human life. On this thematic level, Hallucinating does for folk and electronic music what Gwyneth Jones' 'Bold As Love' series does for rock 'n' roll. Underneath its boisterous, colourful festival exterior, Hallucinating hides a contemplative heart.

Like the festival scene, Hallucinating is bright, wild and just a bit ramshackle; like the festival scene, it's not easily accessible to most of us. Decide for yourself whether this literary experiment is a successful one.

Review by John Toon.

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