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Last Harbor by George Foy
(Bantam Spectra, $6.99, 357 pages, paperback; first published July 2001; this edition March 2002.)

Somewhere in New England there's a decaying harbour, and living there on a cover scandecaying sloop is the equally decaying Slocum, once the technical brains behind X-Corp Multimedia but now a recluse nursing himself through the miseries of his shattered marriage and rejection by his daughter. He wants nothing to do with the world, and the world is adamant that it wants nothing to do with him.

That future world is both recognizable and unrecognizable to us. The milieux within which Slocum moves are little different from their counterparts today; the poor and relatively poor have seen little change in their lives except possibly for the worse. The elite rich, by contrast, have grown inexorably richer, and the technological future is really theirs alone. The sad paradox is that they seem to be doing very little with it except find new ways of entertaining themselves, of filling up the hours with pleasurable idleness, of keeping their lives empty. The vitality of the human race seems to be almost exclusively the province of the poor and dispossessed.

The business of X-Corp Multimedia is interactive virtual-reality entertainment -- the Flash. In effect, X-Corp Multimedia are the new drug lords, and they have come to rule the world; because the Flash is as mind-destroyingly addictive as any pharmaceutical yet of course perfectly legal.

One night, as Slocum contemplates either death or his dreams of sailing off to find freedom in the as yet untrammelled parts of the world that must surely exist -- the two subjects of his contemplation are really one and the same -- there moors in the harbour an almost impossibly huge luxury ocean liner. Aboard it, aside from the crew and security goons, there is only one person: an enigmatic and secretive young woman, Melisande, a recluse like himself by whom Slocum is at first idly attracted, then obsessed. As his obsession unfolds, it draws him back into the land of the living while at the same time progressively revealing the hideous truth not only of Melisande's existence but also of the way the world is run.

The Last Harbor is a singularly beautifully written book, one that transcends all genre boundaries; it is a serious and major piece of fiction. At the same time it is also a crusader for fiction, for the written and printed word, encroached upon as it increasingly is by other media forms. Consider this:

In that same cool blue light he looked at the book and saw what she [Slocum's estranged daughter] would see -- an incomprehensible attempt to approximate, in black-and-white and painful script, a story that four years ago she could have watched in color and sound so perfect that she might as well have been living it. Worst of all, the gap between what he had put into it as both creation and gift, and what she saw it as, would substantify, more than her mother's words ever could, how the separation between them had grown. If he could not understand how she felt about the stories that had once shaped her life, what could he know of who she was now, or how she felt? And what right did he have to insist that he know the forces she reacted to daily?

In other words, the printed book grants the reader freedom -- a freedom that is all too readily denied to the population of The Last Harbor's VR-dominated world. It is the same freedom that Slocum dreams of when he fantasizes about sailing his sloop away to somewhere new, somewhere better, somewhere so bright and shining that it could only exist in those dreams of his. The freedom of exercising one's own imagination rather than simply participating vicariously in the enactment of someone else's imagination.

Foy is a master of atmospherics, and mood. This is one of those books where, once immersed, one has to make an effort to jolt oneself back into the everyday world, to recognize it as the true reality and the book's as a fictional one. This is especially unusual for a US science-fiction writer, whose work might be expected to be more action-oriented. Although there is in fact quite a lot of physical action in The Last Harbor, the real story is one of mental action -- and it's an absolutely engrossing one.

Foy's characterization is spot-on as well. He is an expert in that rare art of perceiving other human beings. Here is just one of the many little character vignettes that appear all through the novel:

[Vera's] gaze seemed the product of great internal pressure. Slocum remembered Vera from X-Corp Christmas parties ... She had always seemed poised and charming and without foundation; one of those people who talked a great deal and the more they talked the less, you realized, they were actually able to do.

Or this, spoken by one of the characters:

All dat man's got is, leaving his wife. Madre de diosh, what's he gonna have left if he really does it?

And then there is the somewhat longer description of Melisande when Slocum first meets here:

She had thin shoulders covered by a scarlet dressing gown that fell to the floor in columns so that for a microsecond he had the impression the ship had been designed to suit her. Or maybe it was the other way around and, because the whole ship was designed like that, she had dressed to match.
A white silk scarf was wrapped around her neck, which seemed to bend as it rose to support the oval of her face. Her nose was very straight until the end, where it turned up. Her chin and cheekbones were not weak but they did not quite work together -- though they looked as if they might, in a plane projected forward from her face, closer to where she was going. Her hair was caught up in back and draped around her features in frondlike whirls and curves. Thin, a little crooked in how she held herself against the door; those were all part of his collection of first impressions of Melisande Yonge. But the ones that hit him hardest, and stayed with him longest, were: She was pale, so pale her skin looked like rice paper lit from within; and the combination of that pallor and her sudden appearance out of nowhere and the particular presence of her convinced him, for another microsecond, that he knew her; more specifically, that he had invented her....

The Last Harbor is in its way a very quiet book, but it is also a very powerful one. And a wonderful one.

Review by John Grant.

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© John Grant 23 March 2002