The novel is science fiction; don’t let the cover fool you into thinking you’ve wandered into a Scientology bookstore and are browsing the Dianetics selection. It is also incidentally very good science fiction. Author John Patrick Lowrie exquisitely blends the space-faring, exotic-chick-banging escapism of old school pulp with the introverted technophilism of 80’s cyberpunk into a really unique crossbreed. With the advent of “new weird” authors like China Mieville, sci-fi has steadily been slipping into fantasy, but Dancing with Eternity shoves that genre back where it belongs, in a cage of steel and computers and vaguely plausible science. No offense to Mr. Mieville; I love the one book he keeps writing over and over.
Back to Dancing with Eternity: in the future, no one dies. Well, some people do because the plot requires it, but most people live forever due to a vast living network that constantly updates one’s thoughts, memories, and everything else into the techno-aether. Bodies are cloned shells, easily replaceable, augmentable, and alterable. Unfortunately, the price for immortality is steep, and resurrection often carries along with it the yoke of indentured servitude and/or unpayable debt. Mohandas, our good protagonist, who has been many things, but is a stage actor when we first meet him, finds himself penniless and stranded on a backwoods planet somewhere in the location-doesn’t-matter-it’s-only-exposition star cluster. Through a series of events masking sheer luck, he eventually becomes an emergency crew replacement aboard the Lightdancer, a super sleek spaceship out hunting white space whales.
The problem is that one of the crew members, Alice, is mortal, destined to grow old and die in 80-100 years. This is not an option for the ship’s Captain Aha—err, Steel, who sets course for the mysterious Brainard’s Planet, which houses the universe’s only other immortal species. These guys are immortal for realz though, as they never physically die. The other problem is that they are also really poisonous for humans, and many have died on the planet researching the death-proof fauna. Lots of other stuff happens; no spoilers here.
But there is thematic content! We’re not dealing with mere bare bones plot here, my friends. The really sci-fi leaning themes have sort of been done before, and sometimes more ably. For example, the whole phantom soul/knowledge inhabiting a recyclable body thing ain’t so new. The Ghost in the Shell series did a fine job with that in the mid 90’s, and it kind of explored that dynamic in a much more complex manner. Also the explorations of religion-inspired Luddite resistance to technology and change is handled…a little…well, it’s not subtext as much just the actual text hammered into your eyes. However, Dancing with Eternity shines in its exploration of human relationships. The ramifications of immortality on family structure are deeply investigated, from just plain old sex, to kid/parent stuff. For example, what’s even the point of having kids at all, if we live forever? Hint: there is none! Why not just have sex for the unadulterated fun of it? (Rick Santorum gasp!) Lowrie also delves into the battle of the sexes. Without the need for a traditional family unit, men and women can face off in head-to-head conflict undiluted by traditional gender definitions. And they do. I haven’t read The Handmaid’s Tale, but Dancing with Eternity handles the gender theme better than any other book I’ve read. Ok, full disclosure: it’s the only novel I’ve read that deals with it.
The coolest thing about the book (in my OPINION), is the technology. I don’t mean the hyper-future sci-fi stuff, like mind nets and warp travel. That tech is so far off, you can get away with just making words up, and people won’t hammer you on details. If I call my spaceship engine a “tachimetric ion hyper drive,” no one’s going to ask me how much horsepower it has, you know? But the sort of realistic almost possible technology Lowrie features in his book is fascinating, and apparently based on real NASA research. For example, there’s a cool planet-orbit hook thing the Lightdancer uses so that it doesn’t have to enter and leave atmospheres. The novel is littered with plausible space tech that’ll get the science geek in you giggling with appreciation, unless you don’t have one in you, I guess.
Dancing with Eternity, though original and engaging, unfortunately also has its share of flaws. Anyone know why 100 pages of the book is 3 people rappelling down a mountain? I sure don’t. I’d say “bad editing,” but I’d hate to offend anyone. I really wish that time had been spent further exploring Brainard’s Planet, which is home to fascinating architecture and a truly “alien,” in every sense of the word, species. Also, the book just plain spoon feeds exposition. Actually, it’s more like in A Clockwork Orange, when Malcolm McDowell gets his eyes clamped open and gets information force fed at point blank. The characters actually visit a museum and learn about history. Seriously. I don’t like visiting museums in real life; now I have to visit them in my sci-fi books? There are subtler ways to world build. The main difficulty, I think, is that Lowrie may have bitten off too much, content-wise, for one novel, especially a first novel. There just seemed to be too many cool places and themes that didn’t get enough coverage. Maybe in the sequel…Also, the book might be misogynist.
Overall, Dancing with Eternity is an amazing read, and a great first outing for author John Patrick Lowrie. There’s cool tech, interesting people, and family/gender themes that are a feast for thought. The ending wraps everything up very neatly, and satisfies. It just leaves a good feeling in your gut. I strongly recommend the book.