When I decided this year to reread books I remembered fondly from my teens, it was a given that some – if not all – might not survive the experience. After all, I’d like to think I’m a more discerning reader now. I’m certainly a more experienced one. And what I look for, and expect to find, in fiction has changed a great deal over the past few decades. So, ten months in, and the results of this year’s reading challenge have not been entirely unexpected – and yet, there have been surprises too. I hadn’t expected to hate The Stainless Steel Rat so much that I’d purge my book-shelves of it and its sequels. I hadn’t expected The Left Hand of Darkness to impress me so much all over again.
And so, for October, albeit somewhat late, we come to Radix, AA Attanasio’s debut novel. Which I’d expected to survive a reread. (The cover below is not the edition I own – a Corgi B-format paperback from 1983 – although mine does also feature a naked man.)
I don’t think anyone would ever describe Radix as a “classic”, although it was shortlisted for the Nebula Award in 1981. Certainly it impressed me enough on my first reading that I subsequently followed Attanasio’s career, buying and reading each of his novels as they hit paperback. And during the 1980s and 1990s, Attanasio churned out a succession of well-regarded and reasonably successful genre novels. Not all were sf – for example, Wyvern was an historical novel, the Arthor series was fantasy, and The Moon’s Wife was an urban fantasy. At the start of the new century, however, Attanasio seemed to drop from sight. He returned only recently, with a pair of YA fantasies.
But, Radix. In this book, the Earth has moved into the path of a Line of energy being broadcast from the centre of the galaxy. This energy was generated in another dimension, and has had catastrophic effects on the planet. In the thirty-fourth century, when the novel opens, Earth is very different. There is a map at the front of Radix, which depicts an area of North America (with north and south swapped), but which bears little or no resemblance to any territory from a real-world atlas. This is where the story takes place.
Sumner Kagan is a fat, lazy, teenaged slob. He’s also a serial killer – he puts together complicated plans in which he lures gang members who have humiliated him into traps, and then he kills them. Kagan is also the father of Corby, a voor-human hybrid who is a sort of voor messiah. The voors are an alien race with psionic powers, who have travelled to the Earth along the Line and taken human form. Kagan is arrested, beaten to near-death by the police, and sent to a penal camp in the jungle. The commandant there makes Kagan his personal project, giving him tasks which improve his physique, fitness, strength and agility, with the aim of selling him later as a slave. But Kagan escapes, and ends up joining the special forces. He trains in a swamp, goes on several missions, suffers burn-out, and ends up living with a tribe of mutants on the edge of a desert…
There’s a lot to get through in Radix. Especially since the above – the history of Sumner Kagan – is only the build-up to what the novel is really about. Which is: when the Earth moved into the Line in the early twenty-second century, a “godmind” called the Delph took up residence in the mind of an Israeli pilot, Jac Halevy-Cohen. The Delph has more or less dominated the Earth ever since. Sumner Kagan is the Delph’s “eth”, “a fear-reflection that haunted him in many human forms”, as the glossary has it. Yes, Radix has a glossary.
For three-quarters of Radix, Kagan is honed and tempered for a final confrontation – but not with the Delph, with the AI it created to manage its affairs, Rubeus, and which has turned megalomaniacal. Along the way there’s lots of weird New Age-y stuff, little of which seems to add much to the story. In fact, Radix is very much a book of two halves – there’s the straightforward sf story recounting Kagan’s adventures; and there’s the underlying battle between Rubeus and the eth, fought with the assistance of the voors (especially Corby, who is disembodied and takes up residence in Kagan’s mind). It makes for an odd reading experience…
… and one, sadly, that these days I have less patience for than I once had. Radix reads like a bizarre cross between Dune and Samuel R Delany, and I admire both. But in Radix, Attanasio was either trying too hard, or not fully in command of his prose style, because his attempts at Delany-esque language are not always successful – “He was a shark slendering…”, “The presence of people was palpable as blood”, “a dreamworld had intrigued into reality”…
Having said that, Attansio’s world-building in the novel is very good. He has created an interesting backdrop for his story, and he uses it well. It is in that respect, and in the character journey undertaken by Kagan, that Radix most resembles Dune – well, that and its appendices, comprising a timeline, character profiles and a glossary.
I’ve read Radix several times during the past twenty-six years, but I suspect it’s one of those books I remember as being better than it actually is. It starts off well enough, and some of the set-pieces are very good, but when the New Age-y stuff starts to overwhelm the plot then my eyes start to glaze and find myself looking around for something else to read. I’ll keep the book on my book-shelves, but I’ll not be rereading it again in the foreseeable future.