Friday, November 25, 2016

Post-Apocalyptic Networking

Review: Web of Everywhere by John Brunner

The societal consequence of instantaneous matter transportation is a recurring science-fiction theme. No one has ever done it better than Alfred Bester in The Stars My Destination, though many have tried. (Or have not tried, as with the inconsequential matter transmitters of Star Trek.)

John Brunner came closest to out-Foyling* Bester with this little-noticed novel. Unlike Brunner’s The Infinitive of Go, published six years later, WoE concentrates on the social and political implications of a matter transmitter called a “Skelter.” In the mid-70’s, with the horror of the Tate-LaBianca murders still fresh in everyone’s minds, the name was evocative. 

And like the “helter skelter” cult, the result of the Skelter technology’s free access to everywhere was murder, plus explosive plagues, terrorism dwarfing 9/11, and the collapse of civilization. A “puerperal fever” kills 80% of the world’s women, leaving many of the rest sterile. Only the invention of the “privateer,” a method to lock the Skelter doors against uninvited guests, and a strict law against using unauthorized Skelter codes, has managed to salvage what remains of civil society.
Theseus / Blinded by the dark / Followed Ariadne’s clew of thread.
Ariadne / Has ceased her spinning / And all doors lead to the Minotaur.
—Mustapha Sharif

Hans Dysktra is a deeply unsatisfied man. He is married (a rarity in this post-Skelter world), but his wife is shallow, vain, stupid, and fat. He works exploring the nuclear-ravaged Skelters of Europe under the aegis of a world-wide government headed by the inventor of the privateer, Chaim Aleuker. But secretly he explores unauthorized locations, documenting the state in which he finds these abandoned houses and the restorations he applies. His secret work, he tells himself, must not be revealed until after his death.

His partner in these efforts is Mustapha Sharif, a blind poet with a method for discovering Skelter codes. Sharif is the opposite of Dykstra in many respects; he lives calmly in a non-Skelter community, he is respected, even revered by many of the world’s leaders, and he deeply appreciates what he has. Despite Sharif’s disability, it is Dykstra who is blind, and Sharif who leads him.

Dykstra’s dark-room work on his latest “find” is ruined when his wife opens the door before the photos are developed. To punish her, he accepts her “treasure hunt” invitation to a party at Chaim Aleuker’s house, and solves the puzzle himself so effectively, he comes to the attention of the world leaders. When the party is overrun by local terrorists, he grabs a young “wild girl” guest and flees with her. Like trying to grasp a cobweb without breaking it, his attempts to have the things he believes he wants lead Dykstra only to destroy them.

The action in the novel is physical as well as mental, but the webs that unite each place to everywhere else serve also to bind people together. Cobwebs in unused dwellings echo the threads of connection that link people to each other. At the center of all these webs dwells Mustapha Sharif, a Way of Life believer whose household is Muslim, a respected elder who directly abets Dykstra’s crimes, a peaceful man whose former partners met violent deaths, a blind man whose observations are sharp and precise.
Once I met a man / who every day / went around the planet counterclockwise.
He said by this means / he gained a day / and would therefore live for ever.
Unluckily for him / Death measures time / otherwise than with clocks and watches.
—Mustapha Sharif

You can now get this novel on Kindle, but for the full experience, you’ll want the paperback edition. You’ll have to watch for it in used bookstores. Ignore the cheesy cover art. This is a story that deserves a wider exposure.

Liner Note

*Gully Foyle is the central character of The Stars My Destination, an unwitting champion at using jaunte energy, who has succeeded in breaking the planetary barrier to "jaunting," as the self-transmission is called. Even after 50 years, TSMD is still the starting point for many science fiction readers.