Monday, September 15, 2014

Review: "Hollow World" by Michael J. Sullivan

I almost didn’t want to read Michael J. Sullivan’s “Hollow World” ($15.95, Tachyon Publications).

Don’t get me wrong. I love Sullivan’s work. His tales of the Riryia are some of my favorite fantasy discoveries of recent years – the kind of rousing, old school adventure tales that brought me to the genre in the first place. Now, he suddenly shifts to science fiction, a genre that I don’t read often and am very picky about what I do read.

But the Riryia tales were too good for me not to give “Hollow World” a go, and, oh man, wow.

Ellis Rogers leads an unhappy life. He’s stuck in a loveless marriage and has been since the suicide of his son, a tragedy that he’s still trying to cope with. Now, he’s been diagnosed with a terminal illness and is looking at six months if he’s lucky.

During his years of misery, Ellis has secretly built a time machine in his garage. With the news of his impending death, he decides to go against his character, throw caution to the wind and crank up the machine for a trip 200 years into the future. He misses slightly.

Ellis finds himself in a world where, at first, he’s afraid humans no longer exist. Then he discovers why there’s no one around. Years ago, humanity moved underground, to the Hollow World, to escape storms and natural disasters that ravaged the surface.

The human race and society have also changed greatly. Humans are now genetically-programmed, identical androgynous beings. Disease, hunger and violence have been eliminated from the world, but so, too, has individuality. Still, there is beauty to be found.

With Ellis’ arrival also comes a problem unheard of in this new world – murder. The first person Ellis meets is Pax, an arbitrator who settles disputes – the closest thing Hollow World has to a police officer. Together, they set out to solve the murder, but both have secrets and both have big surprises coming.

Sullivan has occasionally touched on bigger issues in his Riryia tales, but they are primarily adventure stories. “Hollow World,” on the other hand, is all about the big picture and the big questions.

I found myself somewhat conflicted about the two competing visions for the world that run throughout the book. You have to admit that eliminating things like poverty, disease and crime must be considered good things. But being the individualist that I am, I also shuddered a bit at the thought of the identical, homogeneous human race and, particularly, the idea of the Hive Mind that is being put forth in Hollow World. So, I can kind of see both sides of the coin, as I’m sure most people will.

Given the premise, and some of the secrets that we’ll learn throughout the book, Sullivan must hit on some current hot-button social and political issues, though he does it with a deft hand. Rather than use the book as a platform for his personal views on the subjects, he only touches on them, leaving much open to reader interpretation and providing a lot of food for thought.

Rather than get lost in the minutiae of individual issues, Sullivan looks at the bigger picture and forces readers to think about the bigger questions: What is the nature of love? What does Utopia look like? Is it even possible for there to be a perfect society or, for that matter, a perfect human being?

It’s also nice that Sullivan doesn’t get lost in the science part of the genre, trying to over-explain the mechanics of time travel. Instead, he provides an explanation that’s plausible, though certainly wouldn’t hold up to scientific testing, and uses the device to take a closer look at humanity. That’s the kind of science fiction that I like.

"Hollow World” recalls the classic “idea” science fiction of authors like Asimov and Philip K. Dick, and as much as I enjoy the fun of the Riryia tales, I hope that Sullivan might one day provide us more think-pieces like this one. He’s good at it.

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