Neverness by David Zindell (The Neverness Cycle: Book 1)

One book which had an incredibly dramatic effect on me as a teenager, was Terry Carr's Best SF of the Year Volume 15; oddly enough the only one of the series I could access in audio. Carr himself called it "a book of epics", noting how often a short story or novella can capture more horror, wonder or beauty than many a novel, and he wasn't wrong.

One of the most epic stories in that collection is David Zindell's Shanidar, a story set far in the future on a mysterious and glittering world in a city of ice, a story of obsession and a father's love, and above all, a story of the unreal city of Neverness.

So, when I found that Shanidar actually served as a prequel to a full length novel set in that universe, I jumped at the chance to explore it.

For nearly three millennia, the city of Neverness has stood on the planet Icefall, home to the Order of the seekers of the ineffable Flame, Cetics, Remembrancers, Scryers, historians and horologes, all seeking strange truths and the destiny of humanity through their own diverse disciplines. Pride of the order are the Pilots, men and women who can slip their minds into the white light of dream time, navigating the complex mathematics of the manifold through the neurologics of their light ships, travelling to the most distant of human and alien worlds, seeking the elder eddas; a mysterious message from an ancient race said to contain the secret of life itself.

Mallory Ringess is young and hot-headed, so when he drunkenly boasts to the arrogant Lord Pilot; his uncle Leopold Soli that he intends to penetrate the solid state entity in search of the eddas; a god like stellar being composed of a network of brains the size of moons, he has every intention of carrying out his boast, even though only one pilot has ever returned from the entity alive. Yet, the solid state entity is only the first of Mallory's challenges, since his search for the eddas will take him to the ice caves of the neanderthal Alaloi, to the advanced ocean world of Agathange and beyond, into war and intrigue and the very heart of what it is to be human.

The first thing that struck me about Zindell's writing, is the writing itself. Vast, sweeping, poetic and wondrous, as diverse in its presentation of a far future rife with otherworldly concerns as it is free with simply glorious pieces of language, or philosophical meditations:

"Some say Neverness is the true eternal city, the city that will never die. For three thousand years it has stood as a testament to man's ability to endure. In her granite spires and towers, in her gleaming domes, her streets of fire, in the eyes of her pilots and her far-siders burns the cold flame of our immortality, the soul of mankind. I do not know if she will last for thirty thousand more years as the scryers prophesy, or for thirty million years. Will the planets last that long? Will the stars? As a child of the city I have always believed that her fate is intertwined with man's fate. She is the topological nexus of this brilliant galaxy, and she is also the city of light to which all seekers someday come. There are secrets buried here, there are wonders, there are glories. Neverness, I believe, is eternal in the way that our dreams are eternal. She will endure as long as the race who made her, so she is eternal, and she is beautiful, and she embodies man's very essence."
Taken from Chapter 18, The Tiko's Conjecture.

This is, undoubtedly, the first and most polarising thing about Zindell's writing, since there is absolutely no denying the book revels in its poetry and description, rather in the way Mervin Peake, Erin Morgenstern or China Mieville do. There are certainly many people who find this rather too much, and I suspect, people who began Neverness and gave up after getting bogged down in the sheer verbosity of it all, since at 23 hours, this book is pretty much the definition of dense.

Oddly enough, I kept expecting things to slow down, for the pace to grow from pure to ponderous, and the descriptions and meditations to start to feel overblown, almost surprisingly; they didn't.

Indeed, even though I can't say the book was compulsively readable, once I started, sinking an hour or two into Neverness didn't feel like a chore either.

The second reason Zindell's writing is a bit fulsome, is that he shares with Gene Wolfe and Frank Herbert the habit of just throwing you straight into a very complicated future world and expecting you to keep up. For me though, this is where the book shines, since where Herbert and Wolfe's often obscure language and tendency to throw ideas at you could make the books feel somewhat dry, (literally in Herbert's case), Zindell's poetry, his descriptions of the city of Neverness with its Glissades and Glidderies; roads of different coloured ice, his epic touch with landscapes and starscapes, made the very mystery of many of the obscure elements simply contribute to a whole.

I don't need to know what a horologe is, to find the description of the sky as the blue black of a horologe's robe to be intriguing, or to need to know what the drink called kvass is to find its perfume and taste sound exotic.

Zindell's poetry also lets him throw around big ideas with abandon, without feeling as if he's simply writing a scientific treatise. I know little of advanced mathematics, but I loved the descriptions of Mallory and the other pilots traversing the manifold through decision trees and sets of coloured and visualised idioblasts. Rarely have I ever encountered a writer who can literally stop a life or death struggle part way through, as the main characters' perceptions advance to see beautiful and delicate quantum decision strings of many colours, and yet somehow still make it both beautiful, and terrible, and not completely kill the tension either.

Unfortunately, Zindell's extreme way of writing also magnifies some of the major issues in the book, the first of these being character. The book is told in first person from the perspective of Mallory Ringess, and unfortunately, Mallory is; well to be honest, a bit of an asshole. Confident to the point of arrogance, impulsive and stubborn to a fault, Mallory is simply not a particularly nice person to be around, indeed one great; and obviously intentional, irony in Mallory's ongoing conflict with his arrogant uncle, the lord pilot Leopold Soli, is that Soli is only slightly worse than Mallory himself. To an extent some of this is deliberate, indeed in telling the story Mallory often admits his worst mistakes, however for me the regret showed by future Mallory often was not proportional to the sheer idiocy of past Mallory, which made him a very difficult character to like, especially when he was just being plain nasty to people like his faithful, if occasionally very irritating friend Bardo, or his lover Catharine. I have seem several reviewers praise Mallory as a "flawed character", or a "look at the human condition", unfortunately though, the condition of human Mallory shows is a pretty poor one; which is quite at odds with the generally positive, outward looking view of humanity Zindell espouses most of the time.

With Catharine, we run into another issue in Neverness, the books at times very odd attitude to women, and to sexuality. While the order accepts women as members and many female pilots are mentioned in the text; and even the godlike solid state entity is female, there are occasional odd references to women, for example that women have less developed mathematical skills than men so could not advance as far as pilots. Many passing descriptions of the city mention courtesans and whores; as part of the exotic background of the world, something I could accept simply as colourful culture considering these are professionals rather than slaves. However, the way Zindell also discusses women elsewhere in the text or depicts female characters often feels a bit off, with women described more relative to their appearance than their aptitudes; indeed it's unfortunate that the only female character who is a prominent presence in the text is Mallory's scheming, man hating mother, (though as the book only features two other major male characters besides Mallory this isn't quite as dire as it might sound). Though Mallory falls for his cousin, the beautiful scryer Catharine, this relationship never feels quite real, or rather, while Catharine, and her future seeing abilities are described in loving and enigmatic detail, her relationship to Mallory isn't.

The most egregious example of this is during the expedition to the Alaloi, when; needing a sample of Alaloi DNA, several women (including Mallory's mother), depute that Catharine should sleep with as many Alaloi men as possible to acquire their sperm; a rather drastic method, considering that they also take skin and hair samples. That Mallory objects to this is fair enough, that he feels jealous of one Alaloi partner whom Catharine seems to take a fancy to is understandable, if not pretty, that he proceeds to whinge at length about Catharine sleeping with other men, while freely participating in a rollocking orgy, bedding a large number of Alaloi women following a successful hunt; (something which even Soli as a married man refrains from), is pretty dam scummy.

Neither is this the only double standard Mallory employs in the book, since of course it's quite okay for him to sleep with Catharine, his cousin, but when his friend Bardo begins a relationship with another man's wife, Mallory is extremely sanctimonious about the law.

That being said, Zindell never comes out with anything too blatantly sexist, or sermonises on the nature of women; although (Mallory's unpleasant mother does do so on the nature of men). Zindell also has a wife; quite properly, straight up and leaving her husband of centuries after his rage causes him to cross the unforgivable line and beat her, an action Zindell, and indeed Mallory universally condemn. Nevertheless, the position of women in the story and some of the assumptions Zindell seems to be making here aren't exactly okay.

Mallory's friend Bardo is something of a paradox, an attempt at comic relief which often fails, due to Zindell's weird habit of repeatedly mentioning Bardo's girth, his farting or his sexual hijinks; yet someone who displays a rather startling amount of faith, courage, and the kind of friendship Mallory really does not deserve. Indeed, Zindell's attempts at humour (usually involving Bardo), fall absolutely flat. There is even one scene during the Alaloi orgy prominently featuring Bardo's "spear", which wouldn't have been out of place in a South park episode. Indeed, it's a great shame that for all Zindell's descriptive beauty, his depictions of sex tend to be oddly crude, even when he (quite incongruously), combines them with high science fiction concepts, such as an advanced race of seal like aliens creating bio computer chips to be installed into the human brain, by having a chain of ten thousand hermaphroditic copulations, passing the bio chips one to another through bodily fluids.

For all of this; matters which might have been total deal breakers in another book, the plot still held my attention, taking shocking, and often downright nasty turns, going to unexpected places, and often including, in passing, some ideas so fascinating they could be concepts for entire novels on their own. I loved for example, the warrior poets, clone assassins devoted to the idea that only the closeness of death can make someone truly alive, so engage in murder, mental enslavement and torture simply in their devotion to the idea of letting someone experience their ultimate reality.

I also appreciated that Zindell revisited the principle character of Shanidar during the Alaloi section of the book, although I am still in two minds whether showing his final fate and the squalid life he lived was sadly tragic, or sadistically excessive. Indeed, in general with the Alaloi, Zindell seemed prone to excess, with the luridly disgusting discussions of grease and rotting food and head lice, contrasted with the religious beliefs of the Alaloi, the beautiful landscape, and the strange mix of ritualistic kindness, and primitive cruelty.

The books ending took a long time in coming, and was on the edge of feeling over-the-top, albeit I loved the meditations on consciousness, and the fact that Zindell was able to somehow combine both an ecstatic cosmic pantheism; along with the Alaloi's religious traditions, with the far more hard sf ideas of trans human beings, extending consciousness and evolution, even while acknowledging humanity's potentially self-destructive insanity (complete with nuclear weapons, since this book was after all written in the eighties).

On a character level, some conflicts, such as that concerning Soli, felt as if they were resolved adequately, even if at the end, Mallory still felt like an asshole, albeit a divinely ascending asshole carrying the destiny of humanity along with him. Zindell also; oddly enough a book which freely plays with the idea of wondrous technology, included a literal hand wave reversal of death moment, which was definitely a copout, or at least it seemed to just exist to facilitate a sequel.

I personally really enjoyed Neverness, even accepting its glaring flaws, however, I honestly wouldn't blame anyone who didn't. Indeed, since the novella Shanidar is now available to read free online, as well as in the ebook David Zindell short story collection Shanidar and other stories, I'd definitely recommend people try that first, as a gateway both to the world, and to Zindell's writing. Neverness is a big, beautiful bloated beast of a book. Pretentious, puerile, with a decidedly dislikeable protagonist, and at least a toe over the line into sexism. Yet, under all of that there is a deep current of poetry, a delight in philosophy, and the kind of huge, universal, grand space epic, that really hits you with the truly amazing, complex wonder of existence, from the spirals of human DNA to the spirals of galaxies. Indeed, Neverness is a perfect example of Terry Pratchett's famous dictum, that humanity stands where the falling angel meets the rising ape, since undoubtedly, this book, and this world has both.

8/10 Is mankind evolving, or is it too late, well tonight here's the meaning of life

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