Till Human Voices Wake Us
by Mark Budz
Review by Ernest Lilley
Spectra Mass Market ISBN/ITEM#: 0553588516
Date: 31 July 2007 List Price $6.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK
Links: Author Interview / About the Poem / Show Official Info /
In near future Santa Cruz, Rudi Lauchman hears singing, but he's reasonably sure it's not in his head. Having sustained major brain damage in a motorcycle accident that's a real possibility, but it is in fact coming from Irene, an old homeless woman on the streets of Santa Cruz. Rudi isn't far from the street himself, sleeping in the back of a van from which he broadcasts his one man mission of salvation. Hoping to save someone, maybe Irene, or even himself, if the pain in his head doesn't kill him first.
Jump back in time some fifty years or so and meet Benjamin Taupe, a San Francisco architect. He has pain in his head too, and we find him on a hospital examination table being x-rayed to find the source of the splitting headaches that have been growing over the past few months, blotting out everything else. He's come to a gruff doctor and he's looking for answers, not morphine. He's thirty two and not ready to die yet. He may, however, be ready to start living.
Hop forward now, some unknowable distance in time and space, to watch a starship, the Wings of Uriel, run hard onto the shoals of a quantum discontinuity. And to Olavo, waking in yet another hospital room, this one virtual, but he too has very real pain in his skull. He's all that they could salvage from the Uriel's data stream, and he's not any better off than Rudi or Benjamin, trying to put the pieces of who he is back together. Olavo knows he's a reconstruction of himself, after the storm, and he's not sure he's all there. That's not surprising, nobody else is either.
So we launch off into a ping pong journey through space and time to watch these three grapple with waking from interrupted lives to see what sort of life they can create. Though they don't know it yet, there will be a quiz at the end.
This is an ambitions work, which means that it's going to require effort on the reader's part. Put the effort in, and you get paid amply for it, but if you think you're going to read Till Human Voices Wake Us as a quick way to pass the time, well, you're mistaken. Of course, naming a novel after T.S. Eliot's poem The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock should be fair enough warning that the story isn't going to jump up and deconstruct itself for you.
Science Fiction readers are used to having to tease the nature of reality out of a stories context, and Till Human Voices Wake Us raises the bar on that particular hurdle.
The story follows plot lines in five (or possibly six) versions of time and space, and it takes a while before we get to see how they connect. Considering the span of time, space and person that they cover, that's not really surprising.
Next, Jump backwards to 2) San Francisco, 1937, where Benjamin Taupe is coming to grips with the tumor in his head, causing massive headaches, vision problems and the expectation of an early death.
Then zap forwards to 3) Orthinina, Design Space, where Olavo is waking up to virtual reality from some disaster that happened to his spacecraft, the Wings of Uriel, which seems to have gotten caught in some sort of quantum space disruption that's wreaked havoc on travel, and communications, which in a future linked by "qinking", instantaneous quantum linked travel, and where simplated selves are as real as the atomic kind are more really two sides of the same coin.
Now, hop sideways to 4) Aeleon, Softspace, to another Olavo (see this is where it gets tricky)
...and finally to 5) Sand Mountain, Hardspace, where a "real" Olavo is wondering how things are going on the other side of his link to the damaged spaceship.
If that seems like it might be confusing, don't feel bad. The main characters share your problem, or more accurately, you're being set up to share theirs.
Each of them is trying to put their life back together after some major trauma, and each is only gradually awakening to the world they've been stranded in. They've got a lot in common though, including some variety of brain injury, the sense of being watched, and women that are trying to help them, though they have little more understanding of what's going on than Rudi, Benjamin, or Olavo.
Each of the stories would read fine on their own, and it's a bit bothersome at first jumping back and forth between story lines, at least until you start to notice congruence's between the different men, and they begin to unravel the notion that somehow, maybe by quantum entanglement, or some other notion, they're connected through time. Maybe, as Benjamin learns from an occult teacher he's sent to in hopes that he'll be able to cure himself (or keep an eye on Etta, his business partner's flaky wife) maybe they're all aspects of the same higher order person, realized on different material planes.
As Etta points out, the psychic doesn't have to be right to be onto something. That pretending to understand is different from pretending. A good point, and ultimately a telling one.
Till Human Voices Wake Us, manages the neat trick of being excellent Hard SF while grappling with the evolution of the narrative. Mark Budz has mapped the tools of Hard SF onto an Esherian surface for his story to follow, rewarding the reader with a change through which their own world view will be tilted a few degrees in return.