Monday, January 16, 2017

Till Human Voices Wake Us by Alan Brooks

My friend and neighbor Alan Brooks' latest book is Till Human Voices Wake Us. Other reviewers have accurately described the book’s plot, and I agree with their comments about its strengths: a convincing future world, recognizable characters, a believable math/tech milieu, a tightly paced narrative. For readers of both thrillers and science fiction, Till Human Voices Wake Us will not fail to satisfy. Brooks has deftly merged noir and sci-fi, with the admirable creative choice to set the story not in outer space, but in inner space: underwater.

That’s where my thoughts begin to depart from the standard review. I’m interested in the meaning that can be found just off the page, at the borderlines of the text. The decision to set the story in a world drowned by climate change is more than either a timely topical gimmick or an activist’s plea for environmental awareness. Undersea = subconscious. I suggest this is a dreamscape, where nothing is merely what it seems.

The first point of view we encounter is a whale, a natural denizen of the deep, looking from the outside in through plexiglass to the world of the intruders, humans. The whale belongs; the humans don’t. We’re not equipped for underwater life; we live in glass bubbles… that is, our essential makeup is to remain separated, perhaps for our own survival, from the primal forces of our actual psychological environment. Dreams give us our only glimpses.

In dreams, objects and ideas can be frustratingly elusive to the grasp. The hero’s discussion of how secrets are hidden in the tech world -- lock it up, hide it, keep it moving -- sounds very much like the organic security system at work in the depths of our minds. Or… of our, it could be said, brains in vats (because we can’t prove otherwise).

Early in the story, the protagonist encounters a bit of software that appears to be able to forecast his future behavior. Among other things, he’s seeking that predictive code... a metaphor for self-awareness. How do I find the part of me that can predict what I will do? Do I really want to know? Or… what exactly is leading me? What is buried in my subconscious (or my repressed memory) that determines my choices despite rational logic?

A recurring story device -- that is to say, dream symbol -- is the submarine. Whether the hero’s broken down jalopy sub or his enemy’s sleek high-tech one, the submarine is the one instrument that can navigate the murky, dangerous subconscious. And, in the end, it becomes the vehicle for a final deliverance from the threat of death.

Another symbol is the interface pad or portal used by techies in this future world. It’s the tool, like our mobile devices today, through which so much amazing work gets done. In this advanced world, the pad rolls up into a slim tube that is a visual metaphor for a magic wand. When these are wielded by opposing geniuses, the meta-image is of archetypal dueling wizards.

Two women have major roles in this dream drama: a brilliant, foul-mouthed, principled punk, and a brilliant, elegant, unscrupulous scientist. Both are beautiful and sexy, two halves balancing out the dreamer’s fantasy mate.

A secret equation that promises great power for either evil or good, pursued at great expense by both sides and ingeniously hidden in circular logic, is the MacGuffin in this plot. It’s the device that powers the self-discovery storyline, but, exactly like a dream, it is never revealed. The final sentence in the book is “He picked up the stylus and began to write.” What he wrote is…unknown. After that: only the blankness of the empty page.

In other words, we have just awakened from the dream and the profound insight we discovered has suddenly evaporated. But fortunately we’re left with the delicious remnants of the whole dream: snippets of visions never before seen, the buzz of danger survived, the satisfaction of thought provoked, the aura of mystery ongoing.

Because I prefer questions over answers, here’s a final one: in the title, who is the “us” that may be wakened by human voices? Is it that denizen of the deep that opens the story? Or is it you and me, the sleeping dreamers?

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