Book Review: The Monadic Universe, George Zebrowski (1977)

(Paul Alexander’s cover for the 1977 edition)

2.75/5 (collated rating: Vaguely Average)

A while back I picked up a copy of George Zebrowski’s The Monadic Universe (1977) for my friend 2theD at Potpourri of Science Fiction Literature to supplement his suitcase of SF books he buys every year before heading back to Thailand.  Before I sent it to him I read a single story “The History Machine” (1972) and was intrigued enough to buy the collection for myself.

Bluntly put Zebrowski’s post-apocalyptical, polluted, environment going to hell futures are dull and resort to random violence, sinister women characters, and lengthy information dumps.  The stories containing metaphysical thought-experiments are slightly more successful although the lack of articulate prose weakens their power.  I only recommend three stories from the collection: “The History Machine” (1972), “The Cliometricon” (1975), and “The Monadic Universe” (1972).

Brief Plot Summary/Analysis (*some spoilers*)

“First Love, First Fear (1972) 1/5 (Bad):  Pubescent boy on a watery planet lusts have the local fauna (think mermaids).  He encounters a young mermaid in a watery cave and Zebrowski gives the reader a lesson in sexualizing alien women: the gills on her shoulders were “a delicate pink inside” (3), “her hips were full” (4), “her pubic hair was a mass of ebony curls” (4), and the boy cannot help but touch “her round breasts with his fingers” (5).  Male merman-creature intervenes with seemingly devastating consequences.  The story attempts pseudo-literary parallels between the life-cycles of beach polyps the boy had encountered in earlier explorations and the sexual life of the alien mermaid creature but the result is clunky and offensive.

“Starcrossed” (1973) 3/5 (Good) first appeared in the collection Eros in Orbit (1973), ed. Joseph Elder.  A Modified Organic Brain (MOB) is implanted in a faster-than-light probe ship.  For the MOB time “was experienced time, approaching zero, a function of near light-speed relative to the solar system.  Thought hovered above sleep, dreaming, aware of simple operations” (15).  When the probe ship arrives at its destination then the MOB is programed to regain full consciousness.  However, the dream-like state is inundated distracting erotic visions that plunge it into “womblike ecstasy” and threaten to distract it from the mission (18).   Imagined sex in space in slow time….

“Assassins of Air” (1973) 2.5/5 (Vaguely Average) was my first exposure to George Zebrowski’s fiction when I read it in the collection Future City (1973) a few years ago.  This time around I was less even impressed with the story.  The story takes place in a languid and half-hearted dystopic future where “gloom concealed the city, an obscurity born of dying night and pollutants hanging motionless in the air” (25).  Chris needs to pay for his PLATO lessons (Programming Logic for Automatic Teaching Operations) so he can work at the city’s filtration facility.  Desperate for cash begs for money from the local gangs who destroy non-electric pollution causing cars so they can save the city from its doom….  Soon the gang turns on Chris when they learn his goals (and that he might live in an pollution free apartment with his higher proficiency rating) and the story devolves into a length chase sequence with some explosions.  Dull.  Forgettable.

“Parks of Rest and Culture” (1973) 2/5 (Bad) forms a loose sequel to “Assassins of Air.”  Chris Praeger, who now works for city air filtration, lives in a world where the air is still “foul, barely breathable, acceptable only to those who had no choice” (37).  The environmental situation is so terrible that it causes that the “human organism in its entirely [sic] was being spilled back into the evolutionary past, into the abyss of screams” (30).  This and many other turn of phrase make little sense as I am not sure why our evolutionary past was “an abyss of screams.”  Regardless, Zebrowski’s serious trouble depicting women manifests itself as Chris’ wife gets angry that he seems more interested in taking a job “on one of the trans-lunar-earth stations tied in with ecosystem and resource control” than his job on Earth (43).  She thinks it is all a wish and leaves him for fear that she will get old and ugly faster if he  looses his job and the fresh air benefits it entails.  The story is clunky and uninteresting.

“The Water Sculptor” (1970) 2.75/5 (Vaguely Average) is chronologically the third (but first published) story in the sequence beginning with the “Assassins of Air” and “Parks of Rest and Culture.”  As with the others the world and characters are unremarkable and bland.  Chris Praeger watches the result of the advanced stages of ecological catastrophe unfolding on earth from orbit on “Station Six” (53).  Storms sweep across the Pacific killing thousands.  He feels nostalgic for Earth and its cities.  Chris is friends with Julian—both are barred from taking more missions.  Julian thinks that mankind is unfit for “just about everything” and with his billions built a “bubble station” in space where he freezes water in patterns in the cold of space (57).  Some random catastrophe occurs and Zebrowski attempts at ruminating on the fate and fragility of man and his planet.  Avoid.

“Rope of Glass” (1973) 2/5 (Bad).  Zebrowski clunks together yet another banal, exposition heavy, over-polluted future world where “the air of the city was oppressive, a mass composed of exhalations from a billion human throats and the wastes from inhuman machine processes” (63).  Sam Brickner is a sick man.  His much younger lover, Kathy, procures bootleg drugs to keep him alive.  For some nebulous reason the diseased are hunted down and killed by the death cops: “failing cells had to be flushed out of the organism” (68).  But Kathy and another man seem to be involved in a drug racket—and perhaps their meeting was not as random as it seemed.

“Heathen God” (1971) 3/5 (Average) somehow garnered a 1972 Nebula nomination for best story.  Zebrowski moves from the post-apocalyptical territory to more metaphysical themes—without success.  An isolation station on Antares IV contains a single prisoner: “a three-foot-tall gnome-like biped with skin like creased leather and eyes like great glass globes” (81).  Because this unusual creature sometime “in the remote past had been responsible for the construction of the solar system and the emergence of intelligent life on earth” (82) Father Louis Chavez, Sister Guinivere, and Benedict Compton (linguist) arrive on Antares IV to interrogate it.  Each has ulterior motives for their visit.  Violence erupts and the gnome laments: “I love you.  You did not love me, or each other” (91).  In short, premise devolves into the most ham-fisted metaphysical exposition.  I preferred Philip José Farmer’s 1955 novella “Father.

“Interpose” (1973) 3/5 (Average): Jesus, a time traveller, is jolted into realization of his role after the “spear entered his side” causing the pain to penetrated “layers of memory” (98).  Displaced after his Ascension into the year 1935 he slowly learns what he had done after his disappearance—and that “Matthew, Mark, Luke and John had lied, creating a fantastic legend” (100).  Over the course of the story he reconciles himself with his role and experiences a second Jesus moment reconfirming his distant suffering.  I found this story readable and well-structured.  Despite the rather hokey premise Zebrowski refrains from the information dumps he adores and unveils the scenario with some care.

“The History Machine” (1972) 4/5 (Good) is the best story in the collection.  An experimental story exploring issues of memory, the nature of history (and historical interpretation), and entropy.  A select few deemed important enough receive a History Machine that records everything that happens in front of its lens.  But the contents can be edited—doing history is recording what happens, the History Machine cannot interpret what happens.  The historian lives in a room “covered from floor to ceiling with thousands of history tapes, almost eleven thousand, many of them dating back to when I first began to do history” (109).    He obsesses over the mantra that “everything is history” and every fragment of his life is worth recording (109) but of course, the History Machine cannot record “our thoughts, sensations.  The outside we wear like clothing” (110).  And who is observing who?  The historian watches himself on the tape produced by History Machine observing the History Machine making a tape of the historian….  etc. etc.  Well-crafted, effective, entropic madness.

“The Cliometricon” (1975) 3.5/5 (Good) a loose sequel to “The History Machine” concerns a new history machine: the Cliometricon can “visualize alternate histories” (115).  However, the machine, as a machine, cannot supply the “experience-of-events,” thus the trained “imaginations of licensed historical observers” work in conjunction to produce visualizations (115).  There is debate whether the Cliometricon presents history as something quantifiable.  But as with the History Machine that cannot select what it sees, the Cliometricon generates entropy as “the continuum of probabilities is infinitely crowded” (121).  The story contains a sequence of alternate histories but the culminating moment is painfully pseudo-intellectual.

“Stance of Splendor” (1973)  (variant title: Stance of Splendour) 2.5/5 (Bad):  A rushed and somewhat inarticulate descent into the metaphysical as a man’s mind is rescued from his dead body in a vague manifestation of immortal existence.  As the mind leaves the body we are inundated with memory fragments and broken thoughts.  There are a few beautiful lines: “A man dies and becomes like a ruined house.  The beams fall in, the insides rot, and the walls let in light and wind” (1927).  As the mind enters the galactic sphere the story looses its impact: and lines such as “Spinningspinningspinning stop the earth turningturning stop” infuriate rather than intrigue (128).

“The Monadic Universe” (1972) 3.75/5 (Good) is the second best story in the collection.  The premise is fantastic although the conclusion leaves a lot to be desired.  Three spaceships fitted with deep sleep facilities (for an eight decade journey) represent the sole hope for the preservation of mankind: “the ship had been built for survival, all the half-mile-long egg-shaped bit of it, a microcosm carrying samples of all earths major life forms” (135).  Due to hyperspace drive experimentation around Earth the planet is plagued by a strange atmospheric events causing storms and devastation.  The ships were built to continue the human race.  Unfortunately, on board the ships computers relay fake telemetry (as they are passing through the grey nothing of hyperspace) of planets and stars on the screens to keep the crew members sane.   And then the telemetry takes on rather more hallucinatory images…

For more book reviews consult the INDEX

(Colin Hay’s cover for the 1985 edition)

4 thoughts on “Book Review: The Monadic Universe, George Zebrowski (1977)

  1. I have the magazines with “Heathen God” and “Cliometricon” in them. I haven’t read those yet, but it’s not a huge selling point to me when “Heathen God” ends with a full-page author’s afterword on metaphysics. Interestingly he thanks Malzberg as inspiration and Pamela Sargent for giving him construction criticism…

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