August 27, 2010

Book review: "Urbis Morpheos," by Stephen Palmer

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Urbis Morpheos, by Stephen Palmer

Urbis Morpheos
By Stephen Palmer
PS Publishing

Of all the small presses that regularly send me books these days, perhaps my favorite is Pete Crowther's PS Publishing over in the UK, despite their titles sometimes getting critically panned here at CCLaP; because more than just about any other small press I deal with, Crowther makes publishing decisions based on his heart and gut instead of his wallet, deeply idiosyncratic choices that are the very definition of "love it or hate it" genre work, which is how it is that I can adore the press yet still give it critical pans on a regular basis. Take for example their latest, the profoundly strange far-future tale Urbis Morpheos by British author Stephen Palmer, who I could barely find any information about online, other than that he's written other SF titles before and perhaps (or perhaps not) a series of nonfiction books on psychology as well; because although I ended up really digging it quite a bit, even I'm a little puzzled afterwards over why exactly that is, while there will be plenty of others who will barely be able to stand this highly challenging, highly abstract story. It's the kind of book that wouldn't even exist in published form without organizations like PS; and that's the reason I like PS so much, is that they regularly lavish a lot of money and attention on titles that will make others often ask what exactly they've been smoking.

And in fact, it's difficult to even describe in a straightforward manner what exactly this novel is about, with many of the details I'm about to mention being mere guesses on my part, based on what I was able to glean from this utterly expository-free tale. I believe, for example, that it's set on Earth but merely in the far, far, far future, one million years or more, in which so much time has passed that there is literally not a trace left of the human civilization you and I are a part of; and I also believe that what passes for humanity in this far future is now forced to share the planet with a highly evolved form of machine intelligence, one that has progressed so much for so many thousands of years that they too are now organic if not necessarily biological in nature, self-replicating creatures that essentially create entire habitats that are hostile to human life, forcing the humans to live in either protected areas or in artificial living environments called 'biomes' they've created themselves. The main character, then, is a woman named Psolilai, who actually exists in both physical form and as a dream state in our narrative itself (one capitalizes her name, the other doesn't), leading similar but different lives and with us never quite sure which is real and which is the dream, the narrative simply shifting regularly from one voice to the other and with both presented to us as "real;" and both Psolilais are on quests of sorts, that apparently have to do with the scheming machinations of her Shakespearean family, and that involve all kinds of "million years in the future" concepts that will have your head spinning, like (to cite one example) the "wreality" biological information devices that "live" in giant pools of water within the biomes, which humans then "catch" like fish in order to have their Wikipedia-meets-Greek-oracle information poetically divulged.

I mean, I could go on and on like this, but it kind of defeats the point of reading it, which is not to get caught up in the plot's intricacies but rather to let the whole thing wash over you like the obtuse gift it is, to wallow in this utterly striking universe that Palmer has created, even more fantastic for it supposedly being a look at our own race but only several rungs along the evolutionary ladder from where we are now. It's the kind of book I would never seek out on my own, out in the far edges of the "New Weird" and just barely understandable as a traditional three-act story; so thank God PS Publishing is around to get such books into our hands, the kind of frustratingly dense yet textually rich treat that I only have the tolerance for two or three times a year. It's simply too strange and designed for too niche an audience to get exactly a high score today, but certainly is a good example of the best that subgenre literature has to offer us, the kind of supremely odd yet deeply rewarding experience that will be perfect for existing fans of Mark Leyner, Mark Danielewski, and David David Katzman. It comes highly recommended to those who at least recognize those names, even as most will end up confusedly scratching their heads over this puzzlebox of a book.

Out of 10: 8.4

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Filed by Jason Pettus at 5:21 PM, August 27, 2010. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |