Monday, 23 January 2017

Psionik by Leo De Souza - 3 Stars

I've finished reading this and found it a bit of a curate's egg, good in parts but inconsistent. I thought it would be heavy on science fiction but that content is proportionately small and it has more of a near future political, symbolic and military encampment leaning. That’s fine if you’re writing a story about these subjects, so my misunderstanding of book’s balance has to be set aside and have no bearing on an assessment of the quality of the story. The good thing is, the book that I did end up reading does make you think quite hard about the here and now, about where we've come from and where we're heading, whether the light of hope has turned out to be a trick of the dark, so it's always a good tactic of science fiction to use a future setting to make readers re-examine their taken-for-granted philosophy and question what movements they're part of right now. More of that later.
       The keyword used in the title needs explaining, so here’s the dictionary definition of the word as spelled with a k: “Psionik relates to the practical use of psychic powers or paranormal phenomena.” The origin of the word with the k is given as “probably Russia”. Wikipedia notes [never quote Wikipedia. Oops, just did] there’s a subtle difference in meaning when using the word with a c: “Psionics is the study of paranormal phenomena in relation to the application of electronics. The term comes from psi ('psyche') and the -onics from electronics (machine). It is closely related to the field of radionics. There is no scientific evidence that psionic abilities exist.” I gather from that, the title refers to those who have the ability to control electronic equipment with mind control, just the power of will, as recognised from the cultural perspective of Russia. In a single word, this story meets the criteria for science fiction because if you start from the position of what we know is possible now and take it one step beyond, into the currently impossible or unproven, that’s a science fiction scenario.
       The psionik practitioners in this story can move objects [telekinesis?] as well as directing electronic devices. Never mind, that’s just a petty variation. It’s also important to note that from the middle to end of the last century, the major powers of the Cold War really did serious research into the question of whether the mind alone could affect the physical world. Some of these research themes are echoed in the abilities Leo deSouza gives to his psionic characters – remote viewing, willing things to move, dream travel through space and time, commandless interaction with electronic servo mechanisms and access to mystical refuges such as Shambhala or Shangri-La. The writer cleverly contrasts the Shambalah of light and air in the east, that we traditionally imagine, with an underground refuge of darkness and tunnels, more aligned to the German philosophies of the sub-conscious mind (1860-1930), so the image is massively swapped around and yet still performing the same function, as a refuge of the body and soul. An interesting and original variation, I think.
       There are some highly visual scenes in this book that need to be commended. The first one I liked was the image of people on the International Space Station looking down on Earth, from a higher and more enlightened perspective, seeing barbarism erupt and then joining in themselves. A godlike perspective on the world ends in godlike squabbling, not for the first time in mythology. I also liked the scene with the ten metre tall burnished steel robot, worked by little guys inside pulling levers, which sounds great fun and my perfect day out. I’d prefer to see the robot’s controls being worked by the cast of Time Bandits, but it’s Leo’s book, not mine. If the robot is an unintended parody of Nietzsche's superman (it has the power of and indeed contains many men), the moment it falls represents success for all Beta males everywhere. Good, they can get back to the washing up.
       Another bit that worked well but it’s just odd is the tunnel living, the endless, friendless tunnels in which the denizens have relaxed the enforcement of nationality but seemingly hang onto their religious and political distinctions. The tunnels give the book weight and feeling, oppressive and yet safe, as long as the sense of community or commune can be held together. 1984, Brazil and Alien are other examples of this industrial scale defensive, tunnel mentality but I can’t say that Leo deSouza doesn’t build that atmospheric well.
       Commercially, I think the cover design is a mistake. People don’t want to sit on public transport reading a book where the other passengers can see what looks like a swastika and then form judgements on the reader. That symbol is too stigmatised to use anywhere now. The explanation is that it’s the Hindu symbol for luck (which I guessed before I read it), an ancient symbol of brotherhood but, when combined with the black and flashes of Rothschild arrows, it risks people forming the wrong impression and therefore reduces book sales, so wouldn’t another image be more appealing? Never judge a book by the cover is applicable but what if people don’t always follow that?
       Much of the book is set in near-future Russia but the over-arching conspiracy draws in other nations, from Japan, Italy, the US and the UK. In my view, this doesn’t link together very well and the nature of the division that brings nations to war isn’t as credible as it could be. The assumption that nuclear armed nations wouldn’t use them when being conquered goes against majority thinking. The relative utility value of remotely piloted robotics in fighting is something we haven’t experienced in our past but could be very different in the future and it is shown working here but, as a reader, I was never convinced of the reason for their use, why war and why is a non-nuclear power conquering a nuclear power with only conventional resistance?
       There are people who can perform mental tricks and perhaps operate machines. There are only a few though and you could also operate the machines with levers and the cast of Time Bandits, who are probably cheaper to hire, then the machine gets tripped up by an ordinary opponent anyway, so what’s the fuss? I think more emphasis should have been given on the power to control the masses, to lead people’s thoughts, crowd control. This could have had echoes of the societies in which it has been tried. There’s a short passage of this where a psionik imposes will globally, a huge scale-up from the level of ability they’ve used before but explained because they now have an antennae and a special room. Whether you’re comfortable with that escalation depends on how cynical you are. Then again, I liked the underground balloon guy delivering Easter eggs, so what do I know?
       I thought the book was a little dark and mildly depressing, like 1984, as if the cold war images of concrete, rusting iron, uniforms, discredited political systems and cracking-head differences had never gone away. Life is cheap, bodies are bodies, scrap is scrap and we all drink vodka to forget. Why is food being sent to the tunnels? Wouldn’t the country prefer the soldiers down there to be active on the surface somehow, to be given responsibilities beyond their own continuation? I’m not saying they shouldn’t be there, as the haven needs its population, but a stronger reason why would be helpful.
       The best section of the book is 68% of the way through (no page number visible on my Kindle version), where a professor gives a lecture on our current (2017) western political model, from 2050. The text of this speech will really make you think, or if it doesn’t then you’re too pig-headed to bother trying to reason with. The gist is that the ideologies of Communism, Fascism and Liberalism are just as damaging and disenfranchising as each other but we haven’t all realised it, like we’re sleepwalking. All insist on taking self-determination away, resulting in a club of leaders and a large population of slaves, who don’t even realise their situation because they’re encouraged to see things as important that really aren’t. Is it about money? No. Can you buy a culture, peace or freedom? This is the second time I’ve read a sensible critique of oppression by Liberalism in a fiction book this year and neither were from the right or left wing, they were both describing these ‘control’ systems as all coming from the same bag, degrading our lives. Liberalism, Fascism and Communism all involve a very small group of people that no one has ever voted for imposing their will on a population with their core message "You have no choice" and then robbing them. This is what I’ll take away from the book, that and the image of an underground hive of refugees, sheltering from the cold.
       Science fiction is meant to make you think, to see our widely-accepted and apparently stable reality from a future perspective and maybe think a little harder about what actually matters and what could be stopped or started. This book fulfils that function, briefly, for a few pages. It also revisits some ideas, retro sci-fi and religion, in a memorable way. What it doesn’t do is deliver a lasting corporate whole or an unforgettable character, even an unforgettable imaginary culture or psychic ability, so for me it’s like a bowl of jelly that hasn’t quite set, with uneven flavour. This is not a lazy book because the writer has worked very hard over a long stretch to fill every page with geopolitics, menace, camaraderie, reaction and borrowed symbolism, then put it into the furnace to meld and fuse it together but, for me, the finished product is still in its component parts. A unified vision is one thing to desire but I did like the big robot. Quick, Robot! Take a memo to Merchandising.

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