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Empty Cities of the Full Moon

by Howard V Hendrix

(Ace, $24.95, 441 pages, hardback; 2001.)

Not too many years in our future, scientists researching into immortality -- or at least extreme life-extension -- investigate the possibilities of prionoids. ("I think of a prion as a protein whose altered shape is cover scancontagious to other proteins," explains one of the characters early on. "Sort of like a cross between the games of Go and dominoes. Each protein, once altered, can now alter the shape of those other protein molecules it was itself originally shaped like. A cascade effect.") Because treatment with prionoids can have beneficial effects on certain mental illnesses, it is not difficult to find "volunteers" among the clients of charitable institutions dealing with the poverty-stricken of the streets.

However, at around the same time, though at first seemingly unconnected, there is a sudden, disturbing but apparently harmless craze for rhythmic drumming and dancing. This craze spreads like wildfire, and it slowly dawns on all concerned that it is less a fashion than some sort of psychological infection. More, some of those infected begin to display other symptoms, such as "somnia" -- the converse of insomnia -- whereby people fall asleep for very protracted periods of frenziedly REM-rich sleep, the while displaying religiously rooted (not necessarily Christian) stigmata. Most dramatic of the symptoms, however, is a temporary transition into animal form -- into various were-creatures.

The end result of all this is a pandemic that kills about 98% of the Earth's human population, many of the scant remainder being shapeshifters/were-creatures.

That's the beginning of one main strand of this book.

The other main strand, intertwined with the first, is set some thirty years later, when Christopher Spires -- an industrialist who played a large part in the prionoid-based research into promoting longevity -- has gathered a goodly percentage of the non-were population into a colony in the Bahamas, conferring upon his adherents the longevity treatment. The people of this colony seem to have an arcadian existence, troubled only occasionally by attacks from without by the envious shapeshifters, whose life expectancy is short. Another problem is that the best and the brightest of the colonists tend to become defectors ("abjurers"), rejecting the rule of Spires and the longevity treatments alike and willingly accepting exile in order to continue their own researches into the exact cause of the pandemic.

Naturally, our focus of interest is on various of the abjurers as they travel around the devastated American South in search of each other and the answers to their many questions.

Playing a part in both strands, and complicating them yet further, is Johnny Drisan, a space pilot suddenly snatched from an alternate universe into this one.

This is not a novel that is easy to synopsize -- indeed, it's extremely difficult to do so, or even to follow exactly what is going on while one's reading it. One of the reasons will already be evident: it is jam-packed full of ideas and plot elements -- normally something creditworthy in an sf novel but here done at the expense of readability and character development. Of the 30+ chapters, most begin with extended infodumps or back-stories that on occasion occupy 50% or more of the chapter's length; on one occasion only the final page or so of the chapter concerned actually contains any action that advances the plot. This can be intellectually exciting -- and on occasion it is -- but it does make Empty Cities of the Full Moon somewhat less than involving: once the book has been put down, there is no great emotional incentive to pick it up again, no pressing need to find out what happens next. In short, for all its fine intellectual qualities, Empty Cities of the Full Moon suffers from an emotional aridity that very nearly defeats its whole purpose as a novel.

Yet some of the intellectual excitements should not be underestimated. Here, for example, is a very lovely quasi-scientific model, as described by one of the more enigmatic characters, of psi:

If you analyze the waves of even the ordinary ocean of water, you'll find that they're information-rich. As long as a wave pattern persists, it can tell you about the passage of ships, wind direction, shoreline effects, lots of things. Boats, for instance, don't just make waves as they pass through the water -- they're also rocked by the waves they themselves pass through, which includes the wakes of other vessels. The ocean interconnects the motion[s] of all vessels on its surface. ... [S]o too the quantum ocean interconnects the motion[s] of events that occur in space and time. The quantum ocean functions as a holographic field, encoding the particulars of the motion[s] of events and transmitting those particulars to "inform" the motion[s] of other events. ... The information in the quantum ocean is holographic -- distributed and simultaneously available at multiple locations. Propagation of the holographic wave patterns is essentially instantaneous because they are scalar waves: longitudinally propagating waves of information rather than force. Fluctuations below the energy threshold of particle-pair creation. ... Look at the branches above us [of the trees among which the characters are strolling] and think of the whole canopy as a "green brain". Think of the branches as dendrites. In the brain there are an awful lot of branching dendrites -- far more than the leaves of this tree. Those dendrites release ions, and each of those ions is a tiny electric field vector. There are ten billion neurons in the brain, each with an average of twenty thousand connections. Action potentials within the neural nets are significantly affected by the scalar topology of the quantum ocean -- much the way the gentlest of breezes from the ocean of air affects the leaves of this tree. Our cerebral hemispheres act as specialized scalar interferometers, responding to the presence of scalar waves much the way the leaves of this tree respond to that gentle breeze...

A friend once said, deliberately self-deprecatingly, of a story that likewise suffered the coagulative effect of a surfeit of complicated ideas: "I have a very small mind, and this story is simply too big to fit into it." Reading Empty Cities of the Full Moon I felt exactly the same way. I am certain that this is an exceptionally good book; but I believe that it fails at what it set out to do, which was to be a good novel. To repeat, it offers intellectual stimulation galore -- but the same could be said of something like Hawking's A Brief History of Time, which no one in their right minds would describe as a good novel, or any kind of novel at all. Where Empty Cities of the Full Moon falls down, or indeed apart, is in the matter of story: the plethora of ideas and expositions effectively kills the storytelling and all its usual appurtenances, like (as noted) emotional drive and involvement with the characters. Three-quarters of the way through the book I was still getting mixed up between the two major female characters, Trillia and Tomoko, despite the fact that they are described as different in every conceivable way (aside from gender) and serve entirely different functions in the convoluted plot.

If you seek a science-fiction novel that presents a fearsome intellectual challenge -- a chess match against a Grand Master -- then Empty Cities of the Full Moon may very well be the book for you. However, if it's a novel you're after, then you'd probably be better to look elsewhere.

Review by John Grant.

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