by Brian W. Aldiss
Review by Todd Baker
Del Rey Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780345496713
Date: 29 May 2007 List Price $21.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
Paul Ali, a British national of Muslim descent, is suspected of being a terrorist by the Hostile Activities Research Ministry—HARM. Held in an undisclosed location, but one where torture is sanctioned, he is questioned relentlessly about his background, his travels, and especially a comic novel he has written, Pied Piper of Hament, which his interrogators insist is a subversive tract. Referred to as Prisoner B, he is made to endure pain and dehumanizing abuse, but during moments of unconsciousness, he escapes to Stygia . . .
The planet of Stygia is a world of warm lakes, a rich atmosphere, and jungles teeming with insects. Occasionally, the Shawl, a collection of some sort of small meteoroids, moves between the planet and its sun, creating a Dimoff. To this world have come human colonizers, hoping to create a new society. Upon arrival, though, the leader of a small faction of the colonists kills the captain and usurps power. Astaroth, the usurper, vows to wipe out the indigenous population, called Doglovers, who he claims pose a mortal threat to the colonists.
The Clandestines oppose Astaroth and wish to make peace with the Doglovers. They are able to recruit Fremant, one of Astaroth's personal guards, into their organization, and convince him to assassinate the new leader. While biding his time, he often has nightmares, nightmares in which he is being held prisoner on Earth, and tortured . . .
Thus, these two realities interpenetrate one another, and the reader is unsure of who is dreaming whom. Indeed, there are intimations that Paul is mentally unstable in situations of great stress—as torture surely would be—and on Stygia, Project Cereb investigates why certain of the colonists had lapsed into insanity, perhaps suggesting that Fremant may be one of these. Also, the reader sees other analogies between the two realities: Paul is questioned about Wahhabism and Astaroth's party is known as the Waabees.
The book is full of allusions and intricate wordplay, adding to the disorientation the reader feels—and the author surely intends. Yet, for all the aspects of the book that are admirable, it is often a chore to read. It is also clearly derivative of the work of George Orwell and Phillip K. Dick.
Brian Aldiss is a towering figure of Twentieth Century SF, but this attempt to react to the post-9/11 world will not be remembered as one of his seminal works. Perhaps the best part of the book is the interview with Aldiss that appears at its end, and in which he discusses many of his more famous works. If you are new to this author, start with one of these, such as Non-Stop or The Helliconia Trilogy or even Barefoot in the Head. If you are familiar with Aldiss, you will find this a pendant to his earlier efforts.