Terraplane

Over at Science Fiction Ruminations, Joachim Boaz mentioned Womack’s Ambient. One thing led to another, and now you get this while I work on new reviews. Remember, Raw Feeds are basically my notes after reading a work.

Raw Feed (1990); Terraplane, Jack Womack, 1988. 

Cover by Nicholas Jainschigg

Given the strange argot this book is written in, it’s obvious Womack saw or read A Clockwork Orange one too many times. This book’s dialect is quite similar. 

It is interesting and good. However, at times, it was not detailed enough. (This may be unfair since I know there’s at least one other novel set in this universe and a forthcoming one as well I believe). 

Dryco, the (to use Bruce Sterling’s cover blurb) “sinister multinational cabal”, is not explained much at all. It seems to be amoral, apolitical and subordinates both Russian and the U.S. to its wishes via trade. Drasnaya seems to be its Russian equivalent; a corporation dedicated to ruthlessly enforcing the edicts of “sozializtkapitalism” (a rather silly term — at least so it seemed on first reading of the novel — that has actually started to be used in the last couple of months in the U.S.S.R.), a system of forced consumption in Russia — of Sov goods with the morbid touch of Stalin, the Big Boy, being the ultimate consumer icon. [In 2021, it doesn’t seem that silly a concept.] 

I’d like to know about the war fought between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. (and its surrogates) all over the world including around New York City. It’s very important in the lives of the characters. 

Womack does throw in neat stuff: parallel universe travel via Telsa technology, Fortean events the results of travel between time tracks, an alternate universe where Lincoln was shot before he freed the slaves (Teddy Roosevelt did) and Franklin Delano Roosevelt dies before instituting the New Deal — a universe where time flows at a different rate than in ours. A cataclysm in ours (the Tunguska event and the first A-Bomb explosions) influence events there including the American Siberian Expeditionary bringing a plague back. Huey Long even makes an appearance as does a slave owning Coca-Cola Company which brands its human property. 

Womack brings us two worlds of grimness, sorrow, and despair. 

But what makes the book memorable, where Womack really shines, is in the creation of characters. 

There is the narrator, Robert Luther, a grim, sorrowful ex-soldier. Jake, psychopathic, yet honorable killer, capable of love we find out and constantly hooked on the anguished tunes of a dead, obscure jazz singer. His only act of love kills the protean genius of s Oktobriana Dmitrievna Osipova. 

“Good intentions always killed … “ remarks Luther. Jake finds that out in his odd, brief, intense relationship with Oktobriana. Her death is poignant.  We meet her brilliant, but politically stupid ex-boyfriend who travels to an alternate universe to bring back his hero Josef Stalin. There is the forger Cedric who develops a homosexual obsession for Luther. 

There is Wanda Quarles and her life of pain, some hidden from her husband. He is Norman Quarles, self-taught doctor and Womack’s greatest creation. In him, Womack condenses the pain of his world and cleverly uses, in the guise of this self-taught doctor, the conventions, naivete, and innocence of the sf reader for the future. Quales sees a beautiful future of the ‘30s pulp magazines. He plies Luther with questions about the future. Luther simply replies that the future always disappoints. 

Womack cleverly uses the 1930 World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows, New York as the icon of Quales’ future faith. It is the same (well, almost) as the touchstone World Fair that inspired so many sf wonderous tales of tomorrow and writers like Fred Pohl. Quales’ imprisonment in a violent world that he naively, in a way a sf fan can empathize and sympathize with oh-so-well, believes will become wondrously better is supremely poignant especially for the sf reader. I felt the bite of Quales’ death acutely. 

A flawed, but compelling book. Womack’s tale is violent, sad, grim, and moving. I’d like to read more Womack.

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