NESFA Members' Reviews

Down There in Darkness

by George Turner

Tor, 1999, ISBN 0-312-86829-4

A book review by Elisabeth Carey

This is, presumably, the last new novel from George Turner, who died in 1996. It's set in the same future history as The Destiny Makers and Genetic Soldier, and falls roughly between them, giving us, in its second half, a look at the early stages of the genetically-engineered orderly (and not quite human) society of Genetic Soldier.

As recounted in previous books, global warming and overpopulation have combined to produce a world given over entirely to the production of enough food. There's a small, wealthy Minder class, that has not just comfort but luxury, but which, according to one of the narrators, works very hard and lives with the inconveniences of intensive security to prevent kidnapping and random violence from the poor. The Minders cannot just sit back and enjoy their luxury because it takes the concerted efforts of what's left of the really educated classes to keep society functioning at all. There's a larger, but still small and ever-shrinking middle class, the adult members of which got educated just before the economy's ability to maintain a broad-based educational system collapsed entirely.. These people mostly have pretty good jobs--one of the narrators, Harry Ostrov, is a police detective. Below this class is the vast bulk of the population, the Wardies and suss Wardies, who if they're very, very lucky have grubby or menial jobs such as sewer maintenance, or gardener, but mostly just survive on the dole. A job is a treasured and fiercely guarded possession.

So. We start with Harry Ostrov, mostly recovered from his experiences some months before, when Prime Minister Beltane made his fateful speech and committed suicide (The Destiny Makers). His boss gives him a file to read, an account of a rather odd experiment conducted more than thirty years earlier, in the 2030s, involving a successful and highly regarded artist, and a convicted child molester, and what we're told is complete sensory deprivation--achieved electronically, so that the brain is truly getting no sensory inputs at all. The child molester wakes up cured of his fixation on children; the artist doesn't wake up at all, even when disconnected from the equipment. His wife and son take him home, and proceed to care for his sleeping body for the next three decades. Not long after the experiment, though, the former child molester, Frankie Devalera, tells the artist's wife and son what he experienced during the experiment--contact with the artist's mind. No one has an explanation for this, and no one wants to repeat the experiment.

So, why is Harry's boss interested in this thirty-year-old file, which doesn't even concern a crime? Neither we nor Harry really gets an explanation, but one of the psychiatrists involved in the original experiment has somehow gotten funding, and wants to try waking up the artist. Harry is going to play orderly for the event, so as to provide a complete record of it for the police files. Those present for the attempt include a number of interested scientists, and also three people who are not really identified, but whom we later learn are Frankie Develara, Frankie's aged father, and the father's former ward, adopted illegally while Frankie was in prison, who has now become the very successful head of The Church of Universal Communication, which preaches to the Wardies and is funded, quite generously, by Minders. The first attempt is not successful, but a second attempt, which includes Frankie Devalera, does work. We learn that one of the scientists present is Valda Wishart, granddaughter of one of the masterminds behind the Devil's Flu, the plan to cull Earth's population down to a managable level that Beltane's speech exposed and defeated. We learn that the Wisharts are funding the Church of Universal Communication. We start to get hints of what might be going on behind all this--and then everything changes, and Harry and his friend Gus Kostakis, recruited as a second orderly for the second experiment, get to find out the hard way about what the Wisharts really have in mind for the future of the human race.

I hardly know what to say about this book. Like nearly everything Turner has written, I find it very depressing to contemplate when I'm not reading it--but when I'm reading it, it's not depressing; it's fascinating. Give it a try.

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