In the Country of the Blind
(Tor, paperback, 549 pages, $7.99; originally published 1990 by Baen;
this revised edition first published 2001 by Tor; this paperback edition
March 2003. Includes article: "Afterword: An Introduction to Cliology")
In this fast-paced novel, an erudite, serious young businesswoman,
Sarah Beaumont, asks too many questions about a simple historic subject.
She and her business partner are naïve enough to believe, much
the rest of us, that history lies in the dead past -- or should do.
Back in the 19th century, Charles Babbage conceived a theoretical "analytical
engine", the original design of the first computer. Beaumont believes
this will be a major selling point in a property she intends to buy
and develop. An eagerly acquisitive learning curve and earnest curiosity
lead her to innocently investigate -- and subsequently to a series of
dead bodies, one of which is nearly her own. It appears that two factions
of the same antique "Babbage Society" are fighting a very real war behind
the scenes. Things get complicated from there on.
Michael Flynn has written an extremely likeable novel of deeply researched
theories. His explanations about the Babbage Engine and its applications
are in-depth and knowledgeable, although they do run the big risk of
bogging the reader down in exposition. (Certainly this reviewer was
nearly tripped up a few times during parts of the novel where a lot
of action was happening.)
The characters are engaging and charismatic, with a certain amount
of depth that allows the reader to care about them. As the main protagonist,
Beaumont's greatest flaw is not being able to let herself depend on
anyone. However she is quite capable of handling just about anything
else and saves her own fair share of backsides -- including her own
-- throughout the novel. Her storehouse of knowledge, and how to use
it, is gleaned from an insatiable curiosity and a need to know, and
also a long history of taking short courses. In addition, she has the
courage to put her money where her mouth is and use her knowledge --
in self-defence, as a weapon, and to keep one step ahead of whoever
is chasing her at any given time.
All this, plus her ability to remember practically everything she ever
learned, makes the character of Sarah rather daunting and just a little
too good to be true. It's a marginal feeling, however. Her resilience
as a "survivor of the East Chicago ghetto who got out" depends on her
being able to protect herself physically, mentally and financially.
Flynn's text makes it believable.
The other characters' reactions to Sarah are intriguing and sometimes
funny. The parallel protagonist, Jeremy, a friend of Sarah's, is a more
sympathetic character than she. The two have the same goals: stay alive
and find their friend Dennis. They may take slightly different paths,
and different variations of trial-by-fire danger, but Sarah and Dennis
finally get linked up again in the end. Their respective romantic situations
-- hers just beginning, his irredeemable -- form a satisfying conclusion,
but a big question mark hovers around the whole situation. The societies
will continue, but the shakiness of the alliances makes one wonder what
is going to happen next. This, after all, is but one dangerous episode
in a long and sometimes very bloody history.
I'm kind of left wondering if there is going to be a sequel, and perhaps
what would happen if this was applied to the space-age future.
For an urban fantastical drama, In the Country of the Blind
makes brilliant use of the "what if?" principle and the ability of some
things to survive, be it humans, ideas, or ideals. The author has achieved
this without placing the technology too far beyond belief by using supercomputers
or cyberspace. Human imagination and logic formed the base of Cliology
and its historic beginnings, but its use and misuses remain solely in
the realm of human foibles and flaws, heroism and sacrifice. Read the
book and find out just how much.
I really liked this novel, and when I went back to reread scenes I
felt myself drawn back into the story again -- enough to lose a couple
of hours. This doesn't happen to me very often. I'm looking forward
to reading Flynn's next novel.