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June 29, 2005

A Momentary Relapse of Maslin Watching

by Ron Hogan

I have to confess that I've been deliberately avoiding The Traveler, sharing many of the same doubts about the novel and its deliberately mysterious author, John Twelve Hawks, that Sarah Weinman made public a few weeks ago, when she cited the buzz around it as "adventures in marketing bullshit." She quotes the PW article about the behind-the-scenes push; now NYT revisits the subject with an emphasis on how Doubleday is borrowing plays from the film promotion handbook. Said story dovetails neatly with Janet Maslin's rave:

"It takes outlandish nerve and whopping messianic double talk to inaugurate a new science fiction project on the scale of The Traveler. No genre is riskier. Either the author concocts a true Orwellian synthesis of the world's ills and envisions an epic struggle to remedy them or the author cannibalizes other, more legitimate visionaries, tacks on some silly jargon and winds up sounding embarrassingly second rate."

To be honest, I'm not really sure what half of that means. Is it science fiction itself than which there is no genre riskier, or science fiction on a certain scale? And just how does a "synthesis of the world's ills" exhibit an "Orwellian" nature? I take it that's supposed to refer to the overarching tyranny of 1984's world, but that's way too simplistic a reading not just of 1984 and of Orwell, but of epic-scale science fiction in general. Would any of you who have read Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle describe it as "a true Orwellian synthesis of the world's ills"? And if you don't think that's "really" science fiction, how about Neil Gaiman's American Gods, which is at least overtly fantasy? (And let's not even get into the space operas, save perhaps to note that Isaac Asimov always gladly cited Edward Gibbon as his role model, not Orwell--but then he was working several years before Orwell became a popular reading choice among Americans.)

Actually, this gets at my other major trepidation concerning The Traveler, which is a suspiction that, having spent my entire adolescence and early adulthood devouring all the science fiction I could get my hands on, I've seen this all before. I mean, once you've read Philip K. Dick's Valis, or Robert Anton Wilson's Masks of the Illuminati, or John Crowley's Aegypt, among others, you take the hype around The Traveler with a whole shaker of salt. I feel vaguely guilty about letting all that stop me from looking at the galley and actually forming an opinion of the actual novel; then again, life is short and there's so many books that need reading...

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