Dec 2, 2007

The Commons by Matthew Hughes - review

The Commons
By Matthew Hughes
Robert J. Sawyer Books, 317 pages, $26.95

It’s not often that one can use the phrases “rich study of archetypal characters throughout human history” and “boisterous sci-fantasy action yarn” to describe the same story. In the worlds of Mathew Hughes, however, it would appear that going as far astray from the normal as possible is the norm, so to speak.

Hughes is one of a number of should-be-better-known science-fiction authors being pushed forward by Canadian sci-fi icon Robert J. Sawyer. Through his imprint, deserving authors such as Nick DiChario and Terrence Green are gaining a wider audience for their visions of the fantastic.

Lucky Matthew Hughes. While he has published several novels to acclaim—many concerning his terrifically warped Archonate universe—The Commons may mark his introduction to a far more expansive readership; deservingly so, as an imagination as tremendously unbridled as Hughes should be experienced by as many as possible.

Using the Archonate themes of earlier novels Fools Errant and Black Brillion, The Commons is an exploration of Hughes self-styled “noösphere,” a spectacularly dense world underneath the world, “the distillation of all human experience, everything that had ever been important to humankind, individually or collectively, since the dawntime.” A universe that exists within the minds of humanity, the noösphere can only be visited by those specifically trained by the Institute of Historical Inquiry, an organization founded “scores, some said hundreds, of thousands of years ago, to explore and map the human collective unconscious.”

In this world of the Commons reside “the eternal archetypes of the species: the Fool and the Hero, the Mother and Father, the Wise Man and the Helpful Beast…[h]ere, too, were all the elemental Events, Situations, and Landscapes of the human story.” In other words, the noösphere is a world where all our myths and legends live on, cycling through their stories in perpetuity, never altering, and always dangerous to those “noönauts” brave enough to map its countries. Only by chanting a variety of “thrans” can the noönaut avoid being detected and absorbed into the psychological landscape.

Onto this crowded palette is thrust Guth Bandar, a trainee with the Institute who finds himself increasingly (and unwillingly) forced into interactions with humanity’s historical archetypes and event patterns. Soon, he comes to believe that the collective unconscious has achieved consciousness, and may be trying to use Bandar to some purpose he cannot comprehend.

As with most speculative fiction, the fun is in the details: how this new universe functions, what its rules are, etc. For most, this requires an exacting certitude in presentation, to ensure no anomalies are present. Hughes sidesteps this potential dilemma by creating a universe with no rules at all; the world of the noösphere is in the unconscious imagination, and therefore has no limits, and therefore can do whatever it pleases. This can lead to some bizarre and hysterical archetypal mashups, as when Bandar (no spoilers here, just hints) finds himself physically transformed in a subplot to a famous Greek myth, escapes, and becomes trapped in a children’s fairy tale. All of this is relayed in scientific/psychological jargon such as “The forest, when he entered it, was of the Sincere/Approximate classification…its iconic characteristics told Bandar that he was almost certainly in a Class Four Situation…the Situation’s cycle would involve only indispensable interactions between the idiomatic inhabitants.” Hughes never reveals his hand, letting the reader have the joy of slowly realizing the common archetypes in play. The only obvious parallel is Jasper Fforde’s Tuesday Next novels, wherein the heroine walks through a world populated by characters and themes from great literature. Where Fforde uses Austen and Dickens as templates, however, Hughes mines the psychological texts of Jung and the myth explorations of Joseph Campbell.

While Hughes imagination is exemplary, the novel falters in its overall execution. Originally a series of short stories Hughes wrote for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Hughes has performed a “fixup,” a reorganization of the stories as an overall novel, with inconsistencies smoothed out and overall theme emphasized. Sawyer, in his introduction, takes pains to establish this technique as a classic manoeuvre in literature, reminding us that Frank Herbert’s Dune and Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy began life in the same format. All this is well and good, but The Commons is too obviously a series of stories, and never fully congeals as a novel in its entirety; it is too episodic, too repetitive, and its lack of overall linear flow damages the novel. Bandar is a charming enough protagonist, but he is too much the cipher, and other characters never have enough opportunity to become more than pieces on a chessboard.

It’s a quibble, nevertheless, because The Commons is so rich and rewarding an experience that its shortcomings can easily be forgiven. With its unique employment of archetypes and psychological depth, The Commons is a great introduction to Hughes, and leaves the reader yearning to discover his other works, which may be the greatest compliment one could give.

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