Gate to Familiar Territory
AN ICE AGE HAS FROZEN the world; a ruthless villain known only as One wants to exterminate the human race; a Canadian man with a degree in Engineering Physics wants people to question what reality really is and what it means to be human. Which of these statements is true? Leaning out my front door, I’d say the first one, but our recent, record-breaking “polar vortex” hasn’t gone global (yet). The Canadian, however, has. Edmonton author Isaac Hooke has broken records with “The Forever Gate,” said to be Amazon’s No. 1 bestselling science fiction serial of 2013. In the first two weeks, a thousand copies sold “without any promotion whatsoever,” according to Hooke, a self-proclaimed smart aleck, rogue scientist and pie connoisseur. How does an experimental story from an unknown author turn into a cult hit and go global?
“The Forever Gate” began in January 2013 as a 21,000 word experimental science fiction novella and morphed into the five-volume “Forever Gate Compendium.” In a similar publishing phenomenon, Hugh Howey says the first edition of “WOOL” sold without any effort to promote it. Both Howey and Hooke say they responded to reader demand and wrote sequels. Each new installment consistently shot to the top of the Amazon short-story best-seller list. Howey’s 2011 short story evolved into “WOOL: The Ominibus Edition”with five novellas under one roof. Book reviewers who normally shun indie works have five-starred these books. Readers honor the authors by writing fan fiction, some of which (inexplicably) sells, launching more new authors into the e-book world. Print editions and movie deals grow ever more possible.
WOOL not only scored a movie deal with Ridley Scott, it became the No. 1 work of fiction in Taiwan in 2013. Howey’s publisher is sending him to The Taipei International Book Exhibition. “Wild, I know,” Howey says in an email to his blog subscribers. He has traveled the world, the blogosphere, Twitter, and Facebook, promoting the fiction that began as a self-pub he “never promoted.” So far, Isaac Hook hasn’t established that kind of social media presence, nor does he have a Wikipedia page at this time (Howey does), but the popularity of “The Forever Gate“ is sure to get Hooke out of Canada and onto the busy book tour bandwagon. He’s already done the blog tour and a Labor Day “book blast” in which various bloggers mention the same book and promotional sale of said book.
Call me mystified. “The Forever Gate” may be well-written, but like too much of today’s science fiction, it retreads paths we have trod before. An ice age—what else? Why not a solar pulse, for a change?—has set Earth back to the Dark Ages, even though it’s 3740 A.D. A mountainous wall seals off Earth’s quasi-medieval cities from the uninhabitable outside—not “Stargate,” not the “Star Trek” gate, nor Jack Williamson’s “The Stonehenge Gate,“ but a Forever Gate. An inexhaustible army of pseudo-human entities called gols rule society. Humans have evolved seemingly magical electrical powers, which they’re forced to block by wearing metal collars. Rebels who escape their collars engage in cinematic sword fights with cyber-human gols and Direwalkers. All too often, the rebels are executed by guillotine. Add to this brew a protagonist named Hoodwink who would sacrifice anything, even an entire world, to save the woman he loves. Ooh, and a space station that hovers at the edge of a weird space-time anomaly. To say this novel covers no new ground is not a valid criticism; the truly original plot is virtually non-existent. How the author twists the tropes is the key to the story’s success.
From the opening line we know our protagonist is doomed: Hoodwink stared at the sword that would take his head tonight. That’s a great opening hook, similar to the one that worked so well for Howey in “WOOL”: The children were playing while Holston climbed to his death; he could hear them squealing as only happy children do.
And so Hoodwink fights the good fight against man’s mortality and that of the woman he loves. In the first story she is not identified, but Ari and fellow-rebel Tanner loom vividly and memorably in the following sections. Like Hoodwink, they enter new dimensions and cheat death with smoke and mirrors—literally, a person stares into a mirror until convinced that the reflection is real and the person staring into the mirror is the illusion. Quantum mechanics tells us the observer plays a huge role in how reality is observed, but the mirror trick is a trope I don’t buy.
Humans with super-powers battling cyber-humans is another trope that will never die, and doesn’t need to, but I also don’t need a thousand detailed fight scenes in a 160,000 word book. I kept hearing the theme song of a TV show I had forbidden my son to watch years ago: “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers! They’ve got a power and a force that you’ve never seen before!” The ear worm, er, theme song, and the show, saw unbridled overnight success. In mere months, Power Rangers became a staple of 1990s pop culture. My son won a Power Rangers VHS tape in a school spelling bee (“now you have to let me watch it!”), or I might not have those fight scenes so clear in my mind after twenty years while a friend’s name falls right out of my head.
Super powers are fun to read about, and Hooke conveys that zeal: “He made a fist. He could almost feel the electricity within, the power that was shielded away by the collar at his neck, the bronze bitch. The gols had bitched him when he was fifteen, just when he’d started to develop his powers, like all the other humans who came of age,” but I was speed-reading through most of the fight scenes: “He spun to the right, and the incoming Direwalker accidentally sliced into the one that clung to his back. He flung the injured Direwalker away and brought his sword down on the other,” and proceeded to unleash a river of blood; when wounded, his handy star-device allowed him to heal instantly. “Not that skill mattered much in a fight like this. Hack, stab, release flame, stab again. There was no room for fancy swordplay or deft footwork, just butchery as the ranks bore down upon them,” page after bloody page.
Another trope involves a machine that robs a person of his humanity while leaving the body intact. Hooke’s villain takes special delight in this: “I’m going to suck out all your memories so I can view them at my leisure.” He says of the human body,“… individual cells die by the millions every moment. Again, no joy in such infinitesimal deaths. But when you put 100 trillion of those cells or code fragments together and form a human being or machine, and the complexities of life, real or artificial, arise, that’s when the real joy of killing manifests. Destroying those frail complexities, erasing that fragile thing known as consciousness, that is where the real pleasure lies.”
Science hasn’t quite explained human cruelty of that level, and we’ve not yet evolved our way free of it. Dying is sad enough, but humans who inflict suffering and death on fellow creatures give us even greater reason to despair. Pass the pulp fiction, please, and fortify us with the triumph of good over evil.
“I’m afraid of the Gate and what lies beyond it,” Hoodwink says. “Afraid of death. There’s a reason why we have a Forever Gate. A reason why not even the gols will cross it.”
The “–gate” trope is one that contemporary readers love. A person may cross the mysterious Stargate, er, Forever Gate, and feel as if he or she has been gone for years, though only a moment has elapsed for persons on the other side of the gate. Theoretical physicists support this idea. Space and time are mental constructs, they say—tools of our mind. Space and time don’t behave in the hard and fast ways our consciousness tell us it does; therefore, death and the idea of immortality exist in a world without spatial or linear boundaries.
Death used to be such a simple thing. A man stopped breathing, his heart stopped beating, and that was the end of the man. Now we have all sorts of fantasy, physics, and science fiction stories convincing us death is just a state of mind. Everything that can possibly happen is occurring at some point across multiverses, and this somehow means death cannot exist in any real sense, either. Novelists, apparently confident that the Golden Age of science fiction is over, are hammering this concept thin. I complained about it in my December 2013 review of “The Eidolon,” a death-defying novel by physician Libby McGugan, in which the atom-smasher at CERN unleashes a fifth force that blurs the line between life and death. Or something like that. Novels tend not to explain the physics but to feed us visions of what physics might someday unveil.
Writers can unite physics and biology, put observers firmly into the equation, and sell books about man’s search for the elusive theory of everything, which “has stretched for decades, without much success except as a way of financially facilitating the careers of theoreticians and graduate students,” or so says stem cell pioneer Robert Lanza in his own book “Biocentrism,” which has drawn rave reviews from Deepak Chopra and Art Bell; from scientists, not so much. The scientific study of death has evolved into the career-facilitating field known as thanatology, which led to the rise of narratology in the 1980s. Narratology tells us that we are constantly creating ourselves by telling our stories, and that the self is not a fixed entity but is constantly evolving. (Yes, we need scholars to tell us this!) The thanatological narrative manifests our current culture of death denial, popularized in a gazillion zombie, vampire, cloning, cyborging, and mind-gate stories, in which mortals can heal instantly from injuries and even become immortal. But Hoodwink says it so succinctly: “The truth, to the overwhelming majority of mankind, is indistinguishable from a headache.” And back we go to the pulp-fiction racks.
Reading fiction allows us to escape unpleasant truths, especially the truth that we all die, and that our lost loved ones do not come visit us, phone us from heaven, or give us any evidence that they are aware and alive in some sense that eludes we the living. If Hooke seems to reach too far at times, his highly caffeinated prose and impassioned characters keep us involved in the mind-bending plot. Science fiction does have its origins in pulp magazines, and even today is still regarded a little disdainfully by the literary elite, so my pleasure was not so guilty as I kept turning pages. “The Stonehenge Gate,” Jack Williamson’s last novel at age 97, is said to be a fine idea nearly ruined by poor execution; “The Forever Gate” is a questionable idea that works because it is so well executed. (“The Forever Gate,” Isaac Hooke, Hooke Publishing)