“To the Lukai, when a mother bore a child both the mother and child were really dead souls, locked in fake bodies. ‘The child cries,’ the Death Woman told Cooper, “because it still remembers the truth'” (28).
At first glance the mission was like so many others: negotiate with a native people, the Lukai, over a rare resource that facilitates space travel. But Jaimi Cooper is plunged into an ontological nightmare, he is branded as an alqua, “someone who suffers an illusion” (20). According to the Lukai, “you are dead. We are all dead” (27). And as the mythology and its theology come into play, Jaimi realizes that the Lukai want nothing. But something else propels him to preach “truth” to a people who believe they are corpses, his desperation (based on his upbringing) to “liberate” those oppressed by cult mentalities.
Rachel Pollack’s second novel Alqua Dreams (1987) unfurls a well-rendered philosophical conflict on the nature of reality (whether the alive are dead and the dead are alive). While the plot lags at points, the complex mythology and attention to the linguistic implications (phrases, jests, observations) of the ontological conflict add incredible depth. And while the novel almost resorts to a simplistic “there’s truth to the alien myths,” Pollack walks a fine narrative line that seldom wobbles (note 1).
Recommended for fans of philosophical and character-driven science fiction in well-realized alien worlds.
Brief Plot Summary/Analysis (*spoilers*)
The Lukai dwell in the remains of a vast automated city on the planet Keela. Beyond the city “shimmered the forest, dark and unreal” (5). The Lukai scavenge from the buildings to create crude huts and tattered collections of fragments. They eat from automated dispensers called “Death Mouths,” interpreted as “the mouths of gods who once had spat out feasts and treasures” but, as the gods now lay dead, “their mouths [still operated] like a fresh corpse dripping saliva, giving out pitiful remnants of their past marvels” (14).
Unusual holograms reenact bygone activities, spurring action, like some ancient programming or script…. its purpose sinister and obscure. At other instances robots perform complex games and broadcast the plays to an empty stadium (33). The Lukai women’s house comes with vaginal attachments, the city’s chemical agents regulate a past mystery in the present (79). In this womb-like locale, the Lukai believe they are dead.
The Lukai believe that in death the “fake body decays” and the true self slips between the fingers of the Prankster God, Canumaira (27). In Lukai mythology the Prankster cleaved the universe in two, killing all life. The corpses (named Lukai), attempt to reach Duuni, a hermaphroditic mother entity, and their “World of Birds” (27). But Canumaira fills the tunnel with dead rocks and waters, a simulacra world in which the Lukai can so easily be deluded into thinking is “real.” But the frailty of humanity, the absurd brevity of “life,” and the pathetic ragtag remnants stitched and glued together remind the Lukai of the “reality” of their simulacra world (28).
Jaimi Cooper represents a dichotomous world-view: The reality of now, the scientific explanation that underpins all, and terror he experienced “trapped” by Lukai-esque dogmas…. Cooper works for a company affiliated with the Rhovium Regulatory Agency. He journeys to alien worlds to negotiate with their inhabitants: “first they made sure that the local inhabitants understood the crystal’s value; then they arranged payment” (13). If a contract is agreed upon without subterfuge, the space travel-facilitating Rhovium can be extracted. But the Lukai, attempting to journey to the world of Duuni, do not want the fake objects and promises Jaimi might place in their path to the “truth.” Pollack, on nebulous ground, appears to believe that a Company with a regulatory agency would not take advantage of an alien people.
Cooper’s traumatic backstory, interspersed in short memories throughout the book, motivates him. Raised a “technophile weird kid in a spiritual commune,” he watched the rabid fanaticism of his sister who “isolated herself in the Deep Chamber” in front of the “the Space Wall” before cutting a “shallow incision in each arm” so the blood would be sucked out “into the Deep” (155). Cooper’s world is an experience landscape filled caught in the orbit of cults and spiritual movements. His lover Kerin and his sister leave him for a life “in a Dyson tree” (13) (note 2). He feels unable to convince those around him to question the pull towards blind faith.
As his crusade against the Lukai shaman, the Death Woman, and all she represents continues, he starts to question his purpose—does he want the contract that will rescue his career or to win? (116). And what and who is he willing to give up to finally achieve victory?
Alqua Dreams contains a lush world and a detailed mythology that brings the philosophical musing into stark light. The shifting matrix of the city, perpetuating an ageless pattern with its holograms and automations, immediately imbues a dreamlike state.
The narrative, despite the fascinating alien locale, looses some momentum about half-way through. Pollack finds the most success with the linguistic integration of the Lukai viewpoint. Constantly haranguing and debating Cooper, every fragment of the Lukai speech and interaction with the world (from Cooper’s accounts of alien planets, to biological facts, to description of technology) is imbued with the sole matter that provides “reality” to their existence: the story of the Prankster’s grand scheme and the quest to find Duuni. Ruuli, Cooper’s Lukai lover, cannot pry herself loose from that which gives her purpose:”I created you. In my mind. From my loneliness” (133).
Alqua Dreams contains emotional heft and a willingness to explore radicalism in all its manifestations. My copy of Rachel Pollack’s first novel Golden Vanity (1980) grows more and more tempting.
- I have an unfair complaint–space crystals. Yes, I watch Star Trek (dilithium) but, the one resource in the entire universe we need type plots irk me. I didn’t include it in the review as I’m not sure why. It makes sense in the context of Pollack’s story.
- Pollack’s short story “Tree House” (1984) takes place in a Dyson tree. I wonder if they’re in the same universe. I have the original anthology that it appeared in, Habitats (1984), ed. Susan Shwartz on the shelf.
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