Neverness

by David Zindell

Cover image

Publisher: Bantam Spectra
Copyright: May 1988
Printing: July 1989
ISBN: 0-553-27903-3
Format: Mass market
Pages: 552

Buy at Powell's Books

Mallory Ringess is a Pilot, one of the people who can guide a lightship through interstellar space from inside the dark cocoon and biotech interface that allows visualization of the mathematics of interstellar travel. At the start of the book, he's young, arrogant, impulsive, and has a deeply unhealthy relationship with Leopold Soli, the Lord Pilot and supposedly his uncle by marriage (although they share a remarkable physical resemblance). An encounter with his uncle in a bar provokes a rash promise, and Ringess finds himself promising to attempt to map the Solid State Entity in search of the Elder Eddas, a secret of life from the mythical Ieldra that might lead to mankind's immortality.

The opening of Neverness is Ringess's initial voyage and brash search, in which he proves to be a capable mathematician who can navigate a region of space twisted and deformed by becoming part of a transcendent machine intelligence. The knowledge he comes away with, though, is scarcely more coherent than the hints Soli relates at the start of the story: the secret of mankind is somehow hidden in its deepest past. That, in turn, provokes a deeply bizarre trip into the ice surrounding his home city of Neverness to attempt to steal biological material from people who have recreated themselves as Neanderthals.

Beyond that point, I would say that things get even weirder, but weird still implies some emotional connection with the story. I think a more accurate description is that the book gets more incoherently mystical, more hopelessly pretentious, and more depressingly enthralled by childish drama. It's the sort of thing that one writes if one is convinced that the Oedipal complex is the height of subtle characterization.

I loathed this book. I started loathing this book partway through Ringess's trip through the Solid State Entity, when Zindell's prose reached for transcendent complexity, tripped over its own shoelaces, and fell headlong into overwrought babbling. I continued reading every page because there's a perverse pleasure in hate-reading a book one dislikes this intensely, and because I wanted to write a review on the firm foundation of having endured the entire experience.

The paperback edition I have has a pull quote from Orson Scott Card on the cover, which includes the phrase "excellent hard science fiction." I'm not sure what book Card read, because if this is hard science fiction, Lord of the Rings is paranormal romance. Even putting aside the idea that one travels through interstellar space by proving mathematical theorems in artificially dilated time (I don't think Zindell really understands what a proof is or why you write one), there's the whole business with stopping time with one's mind, reading other people's minds, and remembering one's own DNA. The technology, such as it is, makes considerably less sense than Star Wars. The hard SF requirement to keep technology consistent with extrapolated science is nowhere to be found here.

The back-cover quote from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch is a bit more on-target: "Reminiscent of Gene Wolfe's New Sun novels... really comes to life among the intrigues of Neverness." This is indeed reminiscent of Gene Wolfe, in that it wouldn't surprise me at all if Zindell fell in love with the sense of antiquity, strangeness, and hints of understood technology that Wolfe successfully creates and attempted to emulate Wolfe in his first novel. Sadly, Zindell isn't Wolfe. Almost no one is, which is why attempting to emulate the extremely difficult feat Wolfe pulls off in the Book of the New Sun in your first novel is not a good idea. The results aren't pretty.

There is something to be said for resplendent descriptions, rich with detail and ornamental prose. That something is "please use sparingly and with an eye to the emotional swings of the novel." Wolfe does not try to write most of a novel that way, which is what makes those moments of description so effective. Wolfe is also much better at making his mysteries and allusions subtle and unobtrusive, rather than having the first-person protagonist beat the reader over the head with them for pages at a time.

This is a case where showing is probably better than telling. Let me quote a bit of description from the start of the book:

She shimmers, my city, she shimmers. She is said to be the most beautiful of all the cities of the Civilized Worlds, more beautiful even than Parpallaix or the cathedral cities of Vesper. To the west, pushing into the green sea like a huge, jewel-studded sleeve of city, the fragile obsidian cloisters and hospices of the Farsider's Quarter gleamed like black glass mirrors. Straight ahead as we skated, I saw the frothy churn of the Sound and their whitecaps of breakers crashing against the cliffs of North Beach and above the entire city, veined with purple and glazed with snow and ice, Waaskel and Attakel rose up like vast pyramids against the sky. Beneath the half-ring of extinct volcanoes (Urkel, I should mention, is the southernmost peak, and though less magnificent than the others, it has a conical symmetry that some find pleasing) the towers and spires of the Academy scattered the dazzling false winter light so that the whole of the Old City sparkled.

That's less than half of that paragraph, and the entire book is written like that, even in the middle of conversations. Endless, constant words piled on words about absolutely everything, whether important or not, whether emotionally significant or not. And much of it isn't even description, but philosophical ponderings that are desperately trying to seem profound. Here's another bit:

Although I knew I had never seen her before, I felt as if I had known her all my life. I was instantly in love with her, not, of course, as one loves another human being, but as a wanderer might love a new ocean or a gorgeous snowy peak he has glimpsed for the first time. I was practically struck dumb by her calmness and her beauty, so I said the first stupid thing which came to mind. "Welcome to Neverness," I told her.

Now, I should be fair: some people like this kind of description, or at least have more tolerance for it than I do. But that brings me to the second problem: there isn't a single truly likable character in this entire novel.

Ringess, the person telling us this whole story, is a spoiled man-child, the sort of deeply immature and insecure person who attempts to compensate through bluster, impetuousness, and refusing to ever admit that he made a mistake or needed to learn something. He spends a good portion of the book, particularly the deeply bizarre and off-putting sections with the fake Neanderthals, attempting to act out some sort of stereotyped toxic masculinity and wallowing in negative emotions. Soli is an arrogant, abusive asshole from start to finish. Katherine, Ringess's love interest, is a seer who has had her eyes removed to see the future (I cannot express how disturbing I found Zindell's descriptions of this), has bizarre and weirdly sexualized reactions to the future she never explains, and leaves off the ends of all of her sentences, which might be be the most pointlessly irritating dialogue quirk I've seen in a novel. And Ringess's mother is a man-hating feminist from a separatist culture who turns into a master manipulator (I'm starting to see why Card liked this book).

I at least really wanted to like Bardo, Ringess's closest friend, who has a sort of crude loyalty and unwillingness to get pulled too deep into the philosophical quicksand lurking underneath everything in this novel. Alas, Zindell insists on constantly describing Bardo's odious eating, belching, and sexual habits every time he's on the page, thus reducing him to the disgusting buffoon who gets drunk a lot and has irritating verbal ticks. About the only person I could stand by the end of the book was Justine, who at least seems vaguely sensible (and who leaves the person who abuses her), but she's too much of a non-entity to carry sustained interest.

(There is potential here for a deeply scathing and vicious retelling of this story from Justine's point of view, focusing on the ways she was belittled, abused, and ignored, but I think Zindell was entirely unaware of why that would be so effective.)

Oh, and there's lots of gore and horrific injury and lovingly-described torture, because of course there is.

And that brings me back to the second half of that St. Louis Post-Dispatch review quote: "... really comes to life among the intrigues of Neverness." I would love to know what was hiding behind the ellipses in this pull quote, because this half-sentence is not wrong. Insofar as Neverness has any real appeal, it's in the intrigues of the city of Neverness and in the political structure that rules it. What this quote omits is that these intrigues start around page 317, more than halfway through the novel. That's about the point where faux-Wolfe starts mixing with late-career Frank Herbert and we get poet-assassins, some revelations about the leader of the Pilot culture, and some more concrete explanations of what this mess of a book is about. Unfortunately, you have to read through the huge and essentially meaningless Neanderthal scenes to get there, scenes that have essentially nothing to do with the interesting content of this book. (Everything that motivates them turns out to be completely irrelevant to the plot and useless for the characters.)

The last 40% of the book is almost passable, and characters I cared about might have even made it enjoyable. Still, a couple of remaining problems detract heavily, chief among them the lack of connection of the great revelation of the story to, well, anything in the story. We learn at the very start of the novel that the stars of the Vild are mysteriously exploding, and much of the novel is driven by uncovering an explanation and solution. The characters do find an explanation, but not through any investigation. Ringess is simply told what is happening, in a wad of exposition, as a reward for something else entirely. It's weirdly disconnected from and irrelevant to everything else in the story. (There are some faint connections to the odd technological rules that the Pilot society lives under, but Zindell doesn't even draw attention to those.) The political intrigue in Neverness is similar: it appears out of nowhere more than halfway through the book, with no dramatic foundation for the motives of the person who has been keeping most of the secrets. And the final climax of the political machinations involves a bunch of mystical nonsense masquerading as science, and more of the Neanderthal bullshit that ruins the first half of the book.

This is a thoroughly bad book: poorly plotted, poorly written, clotted and pretentious in style, and full of sociopaths and emotionally stunted children. I read the whole thing because I'm immensely stubborn and make poor life choices, but I was saying the eight deadly words ("I don't care what happens to these people") by a hundred pages in. Don't emulate my bad decisions.

(Somehow, this novel was shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke award in 1990. What on earth could they possibly have been thinking?)

Neverness is a stand-alone novel, but the ending sets up a subsequent trilogy that I have no intention of reading. Followed by The Broken God.

Rating: 2 out of 10

Reviewed: 2017-04-28

Last modified and spun 2017-04-29