Thursday, April 16, 2015

Light on the Sound, by S.P. Somtow

I'm going to be completely honest with people here, I'm not entirely sure what to think of this book. You see, I initially read this book on a sort of self-imposed challenge. A good friend of mine sort of vaguely mentioned this book series she referred to as The Inquest, which no one else she'd ever met had read or even heard of. Her boyfriend and I even joked that perhaps the series was an elaborate hoax on the part of her parents since it seemed to be that obscure. Heck, the ever-venerable TV Tropes where I stumbled across the Bolos has absolutely nothing regarding Chronicles of the High Inquest. I eventually had to wring my friend's arm to give me more information so I could track these books down and finally, perhaps miraculously, found a reprinting from 2013 available on Amazon. And so, flushed with the success of having found the damn thing, I went ahead and read the first of four books in this series.

The result is now that I'm in a very delicate situation and I'm not really sure what to say about this book. My friend is a very big fan of this series, perhaps for reasons which will be revealed in later books, but I have yet to be certain about that. However, this book has been out of print for nearly thirty years and so that leaves my blog in a position to say something that may prove influential. So I'm going to proceed as carefully as I can, and try my very best to be as just as I can.

The plot of the book starts off with disparate threads that are woven together into a larger plot dealing with the Inquest, an interstellar government which rules over the Dispersal of Man, the millions of worlds settled by humans throughout the galaxy. The Inquest is able to do so through ships which can travel through the Overcosm, a plane of existence parallel to our own which makes interstellar flight practical. However, a key component of travel through the Overcosm is a brain of a delphinoid, an alien that sees only in the Overcosm, and acts as the navigational computer of a spaceship. Of course, delphinoids can only be found on the planet Gallendys, which makes control of Gallendys extremely vital for the continued dominance of the Inquest over the Dispersal of Man. The main characters of this novel are brought together by this particular plot, however there is a much larger plot going on as well which I suspect may be continued in later books as well.

The other plot, which is sort of brushed upon but definitely seems to take a back seat, is of a more philosophical bend and deals with the Inquest's firmly held belief that man is a fallen creature and so does not deserve to be happy. Because when man is happy and content then there is no drive forwards, no attempt at improvement, at least according to the Inquest. Member of the Inquest actually specialize in hunting down utopias, finding their hidden flaws and dragging them down so that man does not become content. However over the twenty thousand years of the Inquest's existence there is a growing belief that perhaps man does deserve to be happy, and are seeking to push over the already tottering and creaking Inquest.

The issue I take with this is that all of the "utopias" we find in this book have some sort of secret, hidden flaw, such as everyone has to kill themselves at the age of fifty. Which makes me want to argue that they are not really utopias, but rather dystopias that create a semblance of happiness. And so you might say that the Inquest was justified in tearing them down, if it weren't for the fact the Inquest itself is rather awful in its own way. However I also found myself thinking about utopian fiction independent of this work, and often there's something wrong with the utopia, some sort of horrible secret it's founded upon. The story The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas sort of sums it up best in my opinion, because for whatever reason we simply cannot imagine a society that's perfect. There always has to be at least one flaw. You can even look at the Federation in Star Trek and how it goes from Rodenberry's vision of a perfect future with no war, no crime, no poverty, and no sickness, to by the end of Deep Space Nine, an imperfect government with its own dirty secrets, and lots of economic plenty in the center which makes the Federation look perfect, but less economic plenty on the edges, which leaves plenty of motivation for crime. In a way Somtow is taking the opposite argument, that a utopia can exist, without being founded on some horrible secret or awful sacrifice, but this plot thread definitely takes a backseat to the less philosophical plot dealing with the fate of the delphinoids and the Inquest.

I did notice that the writing seems to jump between flowery purple prose and being refreshingly and almost exposition-dumpy direct. (Of course, as someone who reads encyclopedias for the fun of it, I usually don't mind exposition dumps in a work of fiction.) This seemed to be most prolific towards the beginning of this book, but either it died down or I got a better grip on the plot of the book as it progressed. Somtow did develop a sort of vocabulary of special words in his Inquisitorial High Speech, which varied from klomet, a logical corruption of kilometer over millenia, to zul, a term for a fermented beverage made out of fruit. Seriously, just call it wine. I was probably most annoyed with the words which I went to look up in the book and the definition was the word or the explanation provided within the text. It made looking at the glossary feel unnecessary and so I ended up ignoring it for most of the book. The result is a writing style which I found initially maddening, but eventually got used to as I got further into the book.

Ultimately, I really don't know what to think about this book. There are three other books in this series, and I'm left with the feeling that this book merely establishes the larger plot which will be dealt with over the course of the next three books. Some progress was made and the conflict was established, but ultimately nothing was terribly resolved and we're left with a larger conflict that's still to come. I think I'm going to have to withhold final judgement until I can look at the rest of the series. Because Light on the Sound definitely doesn't work as a stand-alone book.

- Kalpar

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