Sunday, May 16, 2010

October the First is Too Late

(minor spoilers, per usual …)

Whether you’ll enjoy the science fiction novel October the First is Too Late or not depends on one thing: Whaddya think about classical music?

I must admit to being a fan. I also have to say that I don’t recall reading a work of fiction before where music was such a centerpiece. Ostensibly, Fred Hoyle’s 1966 novel is about a massive, major time anomaly. Well, half the book is, anyway.

The protagonist is a professional composer and pianist. Each chapter is titled by a musical term: Prelude, Fugue, Intermezzo, Tempo di Minuetto, and so on. We agonize with him, twice, as he goes off on his own to wrench out onto paper the music that is torturing his soul. Heck, the most dramatic and tense action scene in the novel involves a piano duel.

I actually liked it. But then again, I’m a fan of both SF and classical music. A sixteen-year-old kid with glasses and acne hacking into government databases with his basement computer might not.

Of course, our composer hero is a stand-in for us. He happens to be best buddies with a cutting edge physicist, so he – and we – are thrown into the current crisis threatening the world. He asks lots of questions and asks for clarifications, etc, so we can get the exposition out of the way and move on with the plot.

Sort of.

The set-up is great; I loved it. Dick, our musical protagonist, meets up with John, his old college roommate and now a physicist, for some hiking and catching-up. Both experience some “missing time” … hmmm … and Dick thinks there’s something different about John – physically different.

Meanwhile, a rocket launched to study the Sun has discovered something bizarre. It seems the Sun is tracking us with a beam of energy and there’s some type of information transfer going on. All physicists worldwide are agog. John is called out to LA, and then Hawaii, to help explain the data. He drags Dick along because … well, Dick is us.

Suddenly, in the labs and music parlors of the 50th state, shocking news of global war abounds. What!? Yes, there’s no word at all from the West Coast. Reports come in that Los Angeles is gone. Gone. Of course John and Dick are on the first exploratory flight back to the US to see if it’s a vast nuclear wasteland or not. It’s not, but it’s inexplicably worse.

From aerial observations, it seems that the continental US has the same geographic and technological development of the US of 1750 AD or so. The intrepid physicist and composer fly on with their mates to England. Further flights indicate that continental Europe is locked in the later stages of World War I. Greece is stuck in the Periclean Age. I forget what happened to Africa, but the Middle East was determined to be around the Dawn of Man, c. 5000 BC. Russia is now a perfect “Plain of Glass” and much interesting speculation comes out wondering what exactly happened there.

You would think the remainder of the novel would be “how the heck to we get back to a consistently-applied worldwide date of 1966?” Not so, for it appears we’re powerless to change a thing. So we go off on an adventure of exploration – to ancient Greece. Does Socrates make a cameo? How ’bout Apollo?

I don’t want to give away some of the big surprises towards the end of the book. Yes, there are some big surprises, two actually, that make October the First a worthwhile read. Let’s just say that some people are not who we think they are. And some characters may not be who they think they are. Confused? So was I. But it was a thought-provoking pleasant sort of confusion.

There are a couple of disappointments, to be sure. What the title means I have no idea. John and Dick did mention having to leave for Greece by September 30, though I don’t recall why. There’s also a white-haired guy, called “the white-haired man” in the novel, who plays a significant expository role late in the story but not significant enough to give him a name or personality. Introduce yourself, man! Also, the concept of “shadow worlds”, so reminiscent of parallel world theory, was introduced a tad too shadowy; I’d have liked more delving into that possibility. Maybe there was and I just didn’t pick up on it.

The problem is, the book should have been better. Fred Hoyle – he was actually a “Sir,” knighted for his accomplishments in cosmology in the middle-20th century – is undoubtedly writing about his two great loves here, music and science, without committing to either and perhaps suffering one at the expense of the other. It should have been a better book because Hoyle was the perfect dictionary-definition iconoclast. He rejected evolution and promoted a theory of panspermia. He named the Big Bang the Big Bang as an act of derision, but it caught on. Sir Fred favored the Steady State theory, positing an eternal universe (or one at least 80 billion years old) that constantly regenerates itself. While long disproven by facts, it’s interesting enough to me and definitely appeals to my contrarian curiosity. However, here in this story he’s almost throwing as much stuff out at us as he can, red herring-ish, possibly, while his characters meander to their own stubborn preordained destinations.

I give it a B-minus. Worth a read, yes, but nothing world-shattering. To pursue another analogy, I can see Hoyle hitting this one out for a ground-rule double. Philip K. Dick, however, could put four runs on the board with a single swing of his bat given the first hundred pages of October the First is Too Late.

For my girlishly excitable pre-review of this book, see here.

No comments: